When fast-food companies get bad press, it’s often due to their own marketing efforts backfiring. Burger King’s tone-deaf International Women’s Day tweet is a striking recent example. The McDonald’s “#McDStories” campaign created the opposite of a feel-good response in a similar fashion when a 2018 Twitter campaign meant to promote McDonald’s farmers prompted the sharing of negative stories about the brand instead. Even Wendy’s once tweeted a dubious Pepe the Frog meme. Putting the proverbial foot in the mouth is practically a tradition with fast-food brands.
Sometimes, however, it’s not the ads but the food itself that causes controversy, and the backlash in such cases can be more severe. The “all press is good press” saying doesn’t quite hold up in the restaurant industry when the press is about menu items falling short of expectations or worse, causing digestive issues.
Here’s a look at some of the most controversial menu items ever to be released in the fast-food industry. And for more, check out 9 Biggest McDonald’s Controversies of 2020.
This pita-based sandwich from McDonald’s—reportedly based on an original African recipe—debuted in Norway in 2002. At the time of its release, parts of southern Africa, including Malawi and Zimbabwe, were experiencing famine conditions. The general public as well as the Norwegian Church Aid criticized McDonald’s for its “inappropriate and distasteful” product launch.
Although Mcdonald’s did not remove the McAfrika from its menu, it made a small concession by allowing charitable groups to collect donations at participating Norwegian locations. And as if they didn’t fully get the message the first time around, McDonald’s brought the McAfrika back to its menu in 2008, in time for the Olympics—and received a similarly negative reception.
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Even canonical fast-food menu items can come under fire. In 2013, an Australian teen shared an image on Subway’s Facebook page of a signature Subway footlong sandwich next to a ruler—which clearly showed its true length to be eleven inches.
The image went viral and other customers began voicing similar complaints. Subway eventually issued a public statement in the Chicago Tribune, committing itself to greater consistency in its products. That wasn’t enough for some customers, though, and a group of ten filed a class-action lawsuit against the sandwich chain. After years in court, the plaintiffs were awarded $500 apiece—plus legal fees.
In 2015, Burger King launched the A1 Halloween Whopper, a regular Whopper burger served on a black bun which supposedly got its color from the A1 sauce being mixed directly into the dough. And while a nice idea, shortly after the burger’s debut, stories began to circulate on Twitter about the product’s effect on customers’ bowel movements.
Many were reporting changes in the color of their stool, which was “almost grass green,” according to one customer who perfectly summarized the popular opinion. Pamela Reilly, a naturopath interviewed by USA Today on the subject, speculated that the cause of the discoloration was probably the quantity of food dye used in the buns—not the same kind of food dye used by A1, but a more “concentrated form.” It’s never a good day when stool color remains a burger’s best-remembered legacy.
McDonald’s debut of the McLean Deluxe in 1991 was its first foray into the emerging market of adult fast-food. The McLean was presented as a healthier version of the chain’s popular hamburgers, and a whole line of Deluxe products was rolled out during the ’90s.
However, the sales of the healthy burger failed to materialize, in part because the low-fat beef on which the McLean concept was based was not a hit with customers. The McLean burger patties lacked the taste and consistency of the traditional McDonald’s burger. Moreover, a key ingredient in the McLean recipe turned out to be carrageenan—an organic material related to seaweed—which didn’t make matters any better in terms of publicity or flavor. Within a few years of its debut, sales declined, and the item was eventually removed from the. McDonald’s menu, only to be remembered as one of fast-food industry’s biggest fails of all time.
McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce was originally released in 1998 as a tie-in product for Disney’s feature film Mulan. But the backlash against the sauce and its related advertising was almost immediate. Paul Leung, a Chinese-American Cornell student, started an email campaign criticizing McDonald’s for the use of offensive imagery and language in its advertising—material which Entertainment Weekly characterized as “ethnic stereotyping.” Within a month of its release, the Szechuan sauce was removed from the menu.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Due to some unsolicited promotion from Cartoon Network’s animated show Rick and Morty, the demand for the Szechuan sauce suddenly re-emerged in 2017—and McDonald’s rose to meet it. The re-release was, unfortunately, botched. The chain ended up underestimating the demand for the product, which quickly sold out and enraged customers. Mobs of irate fans in California and Florida, clamoring for Szechuan Sauce, had the police called on them.
For more, check out the 108 Most Popular Sodas Ranked By How Toxic They Are.