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McDonald’s cleared in meat scare

Feb 14,2018
Prosecutors closed the months-long case on the so-called hamburger disease plaguing McDonald’s Korea on Tuesday, announcing they will not be indicting the company due to a lack of evidence that its hamburger patties caused illnesses.

“There is not enough evidence to prove that the victims’ illnesses were caused by the hamburgers of McDonald’s Korea,” said the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday.

But the prosecutors indicted three employees of McKey Korea, a beef, pork and chicken patty distributor based in Sejong, for providing patties of questionable nature to McDonald’s Korea.

There were a total of five victims involved in the case.

This includes a 4-year-old girl who ate a Happy Meal at a McDonald’s Pyeongtaek branch in Gyeonggi in September 2016 and was diagnosed with hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), widely known as “hamburger disease,” a bacterial infection that can leave the renal system severely damaged; a 3-year-old girl who ate a McMorning Meal at McDonald’s Jamsil branch in southern Seoul last May and was diagnosed with E. coli bacteria infection; a 2-year-old boy who ate a hamburger in a McDonald’s branch in Seoul in February 2016 and was diagnosed with E. coli bacteria infection; a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy, who are siblings, who ate bulgogi burgers at McDonald’s Ilsan branch in Gyeonggi in July 2016 -- the girl was diagnosed with E. coli bacteria infection while the boy was diagnosed with HUS.

Of the five victims, the 2-year-old boy who had a hamburger in 2016 dropped the case.

All four victims were found to have consumed pork patties, according to prosecutors. They all sued McDonald’s Korea for violation of the Food Sanitation Act last July.

Children under the age of 5 are known to be particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are not fully developed. As the nickname indicates, many cases of HUS are caused by the E. coli bacteria, which can be found in undercooked meat.

The most damning case of the four was the first, concerning the 4-year-old girl whose doctor said she has to undergo nine hours of peritoneal dialysis on a daily basis.

Prosecutors said they had a hard time finding out if the patties the children consumed were all infected with E. coli bacteria, because all the patties they ate had been thrown out by the time the investigations started.

Authorities inspected the branches of McDonald’s Korea where the victims ate, but said they did not find any jarringly concerning health issues.

They also found that the 1-year-old boy who had contracted HUS had travelled to Okinawa, Japan, just a week before he contracted the disease. There were numerous cases of HUS reported in Okinawa at the time.

Prosecutors raided McKey Korea in October and found that the company had distributed some 1 million hamburger patties that were possibly infected with E. coli bacteria to McDonald’s Korea. They requested arrest warrants for three employees on the charge of violating the Livestock Products Sanitary Control Act.

But the request was denied by the Seoul Central District Court, which said, “It is difficult to see why the accused needs to be detained to be investigated. There is no clear evidence that the patties the victims consumed were directly from McKey Korea.”

Although prosecutors said they found evidence that McKey Korea employees had been cooking their books and lying in their testimonies to authorities, and that they requested arrest warrants once more, the court turned them down the second time.

“McKey Korea abused the system and went around the rules to distribute patties that were not completely tested to be safe,” said a prosecutor. “We will be pressing for some legal changes that are needed in the food industry.”

“The patties of questionable nature were all beef patties,” McDonald’s Korea’s lawyer had told the JoongAng Ilbo during the investigations in October. “But the patties that the victims consumed were pork patties.”

BY PARK SA-RA, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]