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10 Fast-Food Scandals That Rocked the Industry

From the infamous hot coffee lawsuit to "Papa John"'s use of a racial slur, these major fast food faux pas sure didn't help the chains' already unhealthy reputations.

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McDonald’s under fire for hot coffee

You’ve probably rolled your eyes at the infamous case of a woman suing McDonald’s for almost $3 million in 1992 because the hot coffee she spilled was too hot, but there’s more to the story than a cranky, money-hungry customer. Stella Liebeck hadn’t just ruined her pants—she’d suffered third-degree burns that kept her in the hospital for a week and required medical attention for another two years. Plus, it turned out that 700 other people had already complained to McDonald’s about injuries from the coffee served between 180°F and 190°F. Since then, the fast-food company has lowered its coffee temperatures ten degrees. For more crazy stories, read the 13 craziest things drive-through workers have seen on the job.

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NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE-JANUARY 20, 2018: Burger King is one of the largest hamburger chains with over 15,000 locations worldwide.
James R. Martin/Shutterstock

Burger King may contain horsemeat

In 2013, some European meat suppliers came under fire when investigators found they’d been mixing horsemeat in with products advertised as beef. Among the top companies involved was Burger King; trace amounts of horsemeat were found in its supply chain. No evidence of horsemeat was found in BK products themselves, but the fast-food chain tried to keep “neigh”-sayers happy by switching suppliers. Find out the fast-food items that employees say you should never order.

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Bangkok, Thailand - 17,July 2018 : A closed up photo of junk food with selective focus on Fresh fried french fries from McDonalds .Editorial only, McDonald's is a brand from America.

McDonald’s sneaks meat into its vegetable oil

Until 1990, McDonald’s was open about cooking its fries in beef fat, but eventually it switched the recipe to vegetable oil after a push from consumers. What it failed to mention was that the fries still weren’t vegan-friendly—the vague “natural flavors” item on the ingredients list still included beef products. Three vegetarians (two of whom avoided meat for religious reasons) sued the company for misleading them, but McDonald’s argued that it had never claimed its fries were vegetarian. It eventually settled the lawsuits by donating $10 million to Hindu groups as well as some others. Learn about the countries that have banned McDonald’s altogether.

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HDR image, Taco Bell restaurant, drive thru highway sign - Revere, Massachusetts USA - March 10, 2018

Taco Bell’s mystery meat

In 2011, a class-action lawsuit claimed that Taco Bell’s beef was only 35 percent meat, which, according to USDA standards, means it can’t really call itself “beef.” The suit was dropped when Taco Bell put marketing efforts into debunking the claims, but its reputation for mystery meat never really faded. In the age of “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it,” consumers still have beef with the 12 percent of its beef products that aren’t meat.

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BANGKOK, THAILAND - MARCH 15 : Mascot of a McDonald's Restaurant on March 15, 2015 in Bangkok, Thailand. It is the world's largest chain of hamburger fast food restaurants.
Settawat Udom/Shutterstock

McDonald’s plagiarizes its jokes

In 1989, comedy magazine Viz published a tip: “Save a fortune on laundry bills. Give your dirty shirts to Oxfam. They’ll wash and iron them and then you can buy them back for 50p.” Seven years later, a McDonald’s radio ad about saving money said almost the exact same thing but subbed out “Oxfam,” a British charity shop, for “a second-hand shop.” A couple other commercials from the campaign also sounded suspiciously similar to other Viz jokes, but McDonald’s insisted the jokes were common and that it hadn’t used the magazine for ideas. The case was settled out of court, and McDonald’s donated money to the charity Comic Relief. Find out whether these popular McDonald’s rumors are true or false.

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Flies eat meat
Supachai sopaporn/Shutterstock

Expired meat is sold to McDonald’s, KFC, and more

In 2014, undercover reporters filmed an American-owned Shanghai factory changing the dates on expired meat before sending the chicken and beef to McDonald’s and KFC locations in China. KFC’s parent company, Yum Brands, dropped the supplier, while McDonald’s used the same company but a different plant. Get a laugh from these wacky fast-food lawsuits.

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Lodz, Poland, January 1, 2018 yellow McDonald's sign, night, clouds, moon in background, McDonald's was founded in 1940 as restaurant operated by Richard and Maurice McDonald, in San Bernardino, USA
Grzegorz Czapski/Shutterstock

A bad reputation gets worse

Naysaying McDonald’s is nothing new. In 1986, a small group of protestors started handing out a leaflet called “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s: Everything They Don’t Want You to Know,” accusing the fast-food giant of everything from underpaying workers to destroying rain forests. Two of the leaflet’s writers refused to take the claims back when McDonald’s demanded an apology, launching the longest libel case in English history. After an almost year-long legal battle, the court favored McDonald’s, but its reputation still took a hit. The judge ruled that although some of the claims were false, others—like exploiting children in its ads and acting like its food is healthier than it is—held up. Check out the wacky and wild fast-food rumors you shouldn’t believe.

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47th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards, Arrivals, Las Vegas, America - 01 Apr 2012
Picture Perfect/Shutterstock

Papa John puts his foot in mouth (again)

What would Papa John’s pizza be without Papa John? The world is finding out, now that founder John Schnatter was kicked out of the company. In 2017, Schnatter resigned as CEO after coming under fire for blaming slow pizza sales on the fact that some NFL players were kneeling during the national anthem. He apologized but didn’t seem to learn his lesson—after using a racial slur during a media training conference call, he was evicted from the company and later stepped down as chairman. These are the secrets your pizza delivery guy won’t tell you.

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Subway Spokesman Restitution, Indianapolis, USA
Michael Conroy/AP/Shutterstock

Subway spokesman has shocking arrest

For 15 years, Jared Fogle was a Subway spokesman, touting the fact that he’d lost more than 200 pounds by eating its sandwiches. But all that changed in 2015, when he was found guilty of child pornography and paying for sex with minors. Cue the “Footlong” jokes. It wasn’t the best look for Subway, who immediately dropped Fogle from its payroll when the charges came out. Check out these 13 times employees revealed restaurants’ dirty secrets.

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LOS ANGELES, CA/USA - November 11, 2015: Krispy Kreme Doughnuts exterior and logo. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. is an American global doughnut company and coffeehouse chain.
Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

Krispy Kreme picks the wrong letters

A U.K. Krispy Kreme store hoped to draw traffic in 2015 with its Krispy Kreme Klub. A doughnut-decorating club is all fine and dandy, but not when it’s advertised as KKK Wednesday. When fans kindly pointed out that it shared its abbreviation with the Ku Klux Klan, the store quickly ended the promotion for good. Next, learn 33 more things fast-food workers won’t tell you.


  • YouTube: The New York Times: “Woman Burned by McDonald’s Hot Coffee, Then the News Media”
  • The Guardian: “Burger King reveals its burgers were contaminated in horsemeat scandal”
  • CBS News: “McDonald’s Settles Beef Over Fries”
  • NPR: “With Lawsuit Over, Taco Bell’s Mystery Meat Is A Mystery No Longer”
  • Independent: “’Viz’ challenges McDonald’s over TV money tips”
  • USA Today: “China supplier sold McDonald’s, KFC expired meat”
  • BBC News: “McLibel: Longest case in English history”
  • Independent: “Papa John’s founder evicted from company HQ after using N-word in media training session”
  • Reuters: “Ex-Subway pitchman Jared Fogle seeks release from prison”
  • USA Today: “Krispy Kreme apologizes for ‘KKK’ doughnut club”

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.