She greedily sipped at the brown liquid, anticipating the delightful warmth and sweetness of her daily cup of java. But what she got was a repulsive taste that filled her mouth. A strong smell filled the car. In an instant, her mouth had become as dry as sand and the burning started. The fire crept down lower down, over her tongue and into her throat.
All of her senses screamed at her that she’d been poisoned. Then, her thoughts flew to her unborn baby.
Sara Douglas of Lethbridge, Alberta, had just dropped her son off at a baseball tournament. With two lively children and another on the way, she was feeling exhausted. She shuffled into the car as another wave of fatigue hit her. Being eight months pregnant was no picnic.
So when she saw the golden arches in the distance like a beacon of salvation, she didn’t hesitate.
Countless people had told her that she was wrong. That what she was doing to her unborn child was harmful and misguided. Everywhere she went, people chimed in on her parenting choices. Friends, family, and even strangers offered their unsolicited advice.
Her doctor said that if she absolutely had to have her daily pick-me-up, she must limit herself to just one cup of coffee per day. So that’s what she did. Little did she know, there were about to be serious consequences.
She pulled up to the drive-thru window and placed her order. What she needed was a coffee to help her get through the day. She made her routine stop at McDonald’s just like she did every other morning.
The server at the window greeted Sara by name and carefully placed the lid on the paper cup before handing it to her with a smile. Sara could never have suspected what was really inside.
The latte was piping hot, and Sara was careful to let it cool before she took a sip. She recalled the infamous lawsuit filed by Stella Liebeck against McDonalds years earlier and rolled her eyes.
For anyone who doesn’t remember one of the most frivolous lawsuits in history, Stella had ordered a cup of coffee from McDonald’s but had spilled it in her lap as she drove away. She then sued McDonald’s for not providing a warning… and won!
But Stella wasn’t the only one to ever get something more than she bargained for at McDonald’s.
McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants serve millions of customers a year, but do we really know what is going into our food and drinks? Just recently, the fast-food giants had to pull their salads off the menu in the U.S. for a disturbing reason.
Although Sara didn’t know it yet, she too was about to experience something she would never forget.
Something In The Salad
McDonald’s restaurants in Iowa and Illinois were linked to a foodborne illness called cyclosporiasis, an intestinal parasite. Over 100 people became seriously ill.
According to a statement released by the Illinois Department of Public Health, “Approximately one-fourth of Illinois cases reported eating salads from McDonald’s in the days before they became ill.”
But Sara had only ordered a coffee, surely she would be safe?
When her latte had cooled enough for her to drink, she took a small sip. She was barrelling down the highway now and was concentrating intently on the road. But what she should have been concentrating on was the peculiar taste in her cup of coffee.
She swirled the warm liquid around in her mouth and started to notice something odd.
Her mouth started to prickle, and then burn. Then, her tongue started to feel numb. But what was wrong with the coffee? At first, Sara wondered if the pot had been left out overnight and had turned bitter, but that didn’t explain the unsettling sensations she was feeling.
Then, she started to feel ill.
Sara quickly flicked on her hazard lights and pulled over. Was this some kind of allergic reaction? After a few minutes, the burning and tingling in her mouth only intensified.
She scrambled to reach a bottle of water on the passenger’s seat and squeezed it into her mouth. Her tongue and throat felt like they were on fire!
A Strange Smell
Sara swished the cool water around and rinsed her mouth out. Then, she opened the lid of the coffee and took a deep sniff. Her eyes started to water almost immediately, and she noticed that there was a strange smell.
What had the McDonalds employees put in her coffee? And was it dangerous?
Sara was 32 weeks pregnant but she wasn’t tired anymore – now she was fuming. She turned around and drove back toward the fast-food chain. Had they done it on purpose? She was really going to give them a piece of her mind.
But, more importantly, she needed to know exactly what had been in her coffee.
Sara arrived, offending coffee in hand, and demanded to speak with the manager. The cashier at the front counter knew by her stance that she meant business. The supervisor arrived from the back and explained that the manager was off-duty, but when he saw her face he knew that something serious had happened.
Sara had a face like thunder.
Sara pulled the lid off the coffee and thrust it into the clueless supervisor’s face for him to smell, and there was no denying that there was something inside that wasn’t supposed to be there.
He stammered that they would gladly replace it for her at no extra charge, but his training hadn’t prepared him for a situation like this.
Sara felt a bit insulted that she had been fobbed off so quickly and that they thought that a replacement coffee would make it right. She didn’t want another coffee, and her mouth was still tingling from the mysterious substance. What she wanted were answers.
She opened her mouth to unleash her fury, but just then another employee piped up.
The employee had an idea of just what could have caused the bad reaction that Sara had when she’d sipped her latte, and it turned out to be far more dangerous than she could have imagined.
He had noticed that there was something hooked up to the coffee machine and told Sara as much, and the supervisor’s face grew pale.
Inspecting The Machine
The supervisor followed the employee to inspect the coffee machine. To his dismay, he saw that the cleaning fluid lines that were installed during the machine’s daily cleaning were indeed still attached to the coffee machine. After the machine is flushed, the hose is then reattached to the milk supply.
But instead of milk, Sara’s latte contained a dangerous cocktail of cleaning chemicals.
When the supervisor returned to explain to Sara what had happened, she was appalled. She asked to see the bottle of cleaning fluid immediately, and the supervisor obliged. The bottle contained multiple warnings on its label, including “keep out of reach of children.”
She pulled out her phone and dialed the number of the poison control center on the label.
The poison control center informed Sara that the cleaning fluid was acid-based and highly dangerous, and she was told to watch out for any symptoms of poisoning. Luckily, all she had was the burning sensation in her mouth.
Even though the burning and tingling in her mouth didn’t subside for the next 45 minutes, she didn’t require a trip to the hospital.
On closer inspection of the coffee cup, Sara said that “you could tell that it had kind of been eaten away at the seam.”
Thankfully, Sara didn’t experience any lasting effects from the contaminated coffee, but said: “It took a couple of days for the smell and the taste to even leave my mind.”
Shortly after the troubling incident, Sara received an apology from the owner of the franchise, Dan Brown, who issued a statement: “McDonald’s is renowned for its food safety protocols and I am sorry that this happened in my restaurant here in Lethbridge.”
“We have taken immediate action to review the proper cleaning procedures with the team and have put additional signage up as an added reminder.” But this is not the first incident of someone receiving a tainted coffee.
Not The First Incident
Back in 2015, Reserve Officer Paul Watkins filled a cup with iced tea at Mcdonalds at the self-serve station. Noticing that it looked darker than usual, he removed the lid from the dispenser before shrugging his gut-feeling off.
He took a big gulp, and then his mouth and throat started to burn. He immediately turned to the girl at the counter and informed her that something was wrong, but it was already too late.
A Toxic Concoction
It turned out that McDonald’s staff had been cleaning the lines of the iced tea dispensers that day, but had neglected to place a paper cup over the nozzles to prevent customers from drinking heavy-duty degreaser.
“The irony of this all was that manager asked Paul if he wanted another cup or glass of tea and told one of the employees, ‘Hey, get this guy another tea,'” Sam Jacobs, Paul Watkins’s lawyer, explained later. “Paul said ‘No, thanks’ and left. By the time he got not very far in his police car, he became violently ill.”
Paul immediately called his wife, Jerilyn Watkins, from his squad car and told her that his throat was burning, all the way down to his chest. He said that he felt as though he had just swallowed “bleach”.
Paul was then rushed to IU Health Methodist Hospital, where he spent the night under observation. Since then, he has suffered from long-term effects of drinking the McDonalds heavy-duty degreaser.
It’s worrying that the cases of accidental poisoning with cleaning fluid at McDonald’s don’t stop there.
The Long-Term Effects
Paul Watkins has since had trouble swallowing and endless gastrointestinal problems. “My husband has never drank, never smoked, never done drugs,” his wife said. “This is just insane.”
Another man also came forward after hearing Sara Douglas’ story. Corey Irwin from Red Deer recalls: “I took a sip of it and realized right away that it wasn’t coffee, that there was a chemical,” Irwin said. “Sort of caustic because I could feel my tongue going a bit numb.” He then took a picture of what was left of the chemical-laden liquid and reported it to McDonald’s staff.
Change Is Needed
Corey was told that his complaint would be escalated and that the matter would be dealt with. So he was appalled to hear that Sara Douglas had received cleaning fluid in her coffee just a few months later.
“It’s disappointing. Obviously, they have to have changes come up from higher above,” Corey said in an interview. “Maybe the particular location where I went might’ve got their act together, but I mean, McDonald’s worldwide might have to take some steps to ensure other people don’t get hurt.”
The Warnings On The Label
The chemical composition of the cleaning agent Sara Douglas and others drank was citric acid, phosphoric acid, methyl-trimethyl-3, and 2-butoxyethanol.
The label warns: “Causes serious eye irritation. May cause an allergic skin reaction. Keep out of reach of children. Wear protective gloves/eye protection.” It also goes on to say that if contact with the skin is made, it should be rinsed off immediately with water.
“My goal is to raise awareness and that is it,” Sara told the Calgary Eyeopener. “I want to look out for the children that are going through McDonald’s. Heaven forbid anything was to happen to them.”
Since the unsettling incidences, food inspectors are going to keep a closer eye on dispensing machines at McDonald’s. A spokesperson said that they have investigated the reports of both Sara and Corey, but have found the dispensers to be satisfactory upon investigation.
A Growing Concern
Corey also voices his concern and insists that the cleaning fluid in McDonald’s drinks is a problem that needs urgent attention.
“I knew I wasn’t really in any danger because I didn’t swallow enough,” he said. “But I mean, I could only imagine that if the concentration was higher, it could have been burning my throat, maybe I would’ve got in a car accident or something, like it could have been pretty bad.” For now, though, he has some advice for coffee lovers.
Corey’s Simple Solution
Since his dangerous experience, Corey has stopped ordering drinks from McDonald’s early in the morning. This ensures that he avoids cleaning time. He also said that he now smells his coffee before tasting it to make sure it hasn’t been contaminated.
This seems like sound advice for anyone who loves to get their daily pick-me-up from McDonald’s — or any other franchise, for that matter.