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McDonald’s Warns Papers Against Critical Ad

April 13, 1990 GMT

CHICAGO (AP) _ Big Mac is on the attack, warning newspapers around the country not to reprint a full-page ad placed by an Omaha industrialist who on Friday reiterated his claim that McDonald Corp.’s food is too fatty.

″We think the papers just didn’t check the facts,″ said McDonald’s attorney Joseph Califano. He said the fast food company had advised the newspapers that the ad was misleading and asked them not to publish it again.

″Now they know the facts, now they are all on notice ... To publish anything like that ad would be a malicious act,″ Califano said.

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The fat flap began April 4, when industrialist and anti-cholesterol crusader Phil Sokolof placed ads headlined ″The Poisoning of America 3/8″ in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and several other papers.

″McDonald’s, Your Hamburgers Have Too Much Fat 3/8″ proclaimed the ad, which went on to ask McDonald’s to reduce the fat in its hamburgers by 10 percent as a ″contribution toward lowering cholesterol levels for Americans.″

McDonald’s said Friday the ad was riddled with error.

″Just about everything in the ad except the spelling of McDonald’s was inaccurate,″ said Chuck Ebeling, a spokesman for the Oak Brook, Ill.-based fast food giant.

″The assertion of the ad, the poisoning of America, is an outrageous lie that we don’t think any responsible publication should have published,″ Ebeling said.

Sokolof, reached in Omaha, said McDonald’s was putting up a smoke screen and that the ad was a public service.

″McDonald’s has chosen to try and intimidate the nation’s leading newspapers,″ said Sokolof, who blames a bad diet for a heart attack he suffered years ago.

Ebeling said the ad ″blatantly overstated″ the saturated fat content of McDonald’s products, including an assertion that McDonald’s precooked hamburger meat is 21.5 percent fat.

″In reality, the fat content before cooking is 17 to 20 percent fat and is typically 19.5 percent fat,″ Ebeling said.

However, an official of a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said either way, the saturated fat levels in fast food are too high.

″To me, the important part is that the general thrust of the ad was correct,″ said nutrition director Bonnie Liebman. ″Many of the foods served at McDonald’s are loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol and eating less would reduce heart disease, the nation’s largest killer.

″A 10 percent reduction would still leave us with pretty fatty sandwiches, but it’s a start,″ she said.

Ebeling said McDonald’s has worked over the past several years to develop a more healthy menu that now includes salads, low-fat milk, and bran muffins.

The company is also experimenting with using pure vegetable oil - rather than the current mixture of beef shortening and vegetable oil - for cooking its french fries and hash browns.

Sokoloff would not rule out placing more ads in the future, but did not reveal his plans.

And neither Ebeling nor Califano would rule out the possibility of lawsuits against newspapers that run the advertisement in the future.

But a Chicago expert in libel law said a lawsuit was unlikely and speculated the letters to newspapers merely represented saber-rattling on the part of McDonald’s.

″This ad has strong language, but it is clearly not actionable,″ said attorney Don Reuben. ″McDonald’s has not yet sued the people that wrote the ad - that in itself would tell a newspaper it’s not libelous.″

Some newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times and The Boston Globe, opted not to publish the ad the first time around.

″We don’t accept any advertising that casts other companies in a negative light,″ said Globe spokesman Richard Gulla.

But others, including The Wall Street Journal, did publish it and said newspapers could not be expected to check the facts of every advertisement they carry.

″The fact that McDonald’s has complained about it doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t factual,″ said Roger May, a spokesman for the Journal.

But May said that in light of McDonald’s letter, the Journal would probably ask Sokolof to substantiate some of the ad’s claims if asked to run it in the future.