A man with a life-threatening milk allergy has sued McDonald’s alleging that a slice of American cheese on his Big Mac caused him to have a severe allergic reaction.
Charles Olsen placed an order for a Big Mac meal without cheese through the food delivery platform DoorDash in February 2021 from a New York City McDonald’s, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Friday and first reported by The Daily Beast. The legal complaint included a copy of Olsen’s online order, which showed he had checked “No American Cheese” when he placed it.
Olsen, 28, of Rockland County, New York, had ordered “this specific meal from this same McDonald’s through DoorDash multiple times before and never had a problem with it,” said one of his attorneys, Jory Lange Jr., whose Texas firm specializes in food safety cases.
“They had always made it without cheese when that had been requested in the past, so he thought this would be safe,” Lange said.
But after a few bites of his meal, says the lawsuit, which was filed in New York Supreme Court, Olsen “immediately felt like something wasn’t right. His throat began to itch and swell. He felt a burning sensation throughout his body. He looked at his girlfriend, Alexandra, and coughed, ‘There’s milk in this!’”
Within minutes, Olsen’s body was covered in hives and his breathing became labored, the lawsuit adds. It says that as Olsen gasped for air, his girlfriend rushed him to the hospital, where he was “on the brink of needing intubation to save his life” and was admitted for anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can be deadly if not treated immediately.
Doctors were able to stabilize and discharge Olsen after several hours, the lawsuit says.
McDonald’s Corp. declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Colley Group, which owns the McDonald’s franchise that prepared Olsen’s meal and is also a defendant, said in a statement Monday: “Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers. We take every complaint seriously and are actively reviewing these claims.”
DoorDash, which is not a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how it handles allergens.
McDonald’s Big Macs contain two beef patties topped with pickles, lettuce, onion, dairy-free sauce and a slice of American cheese. When Olsen ordered his meal, there was no way for him to convey to McDonald’s that he was removing the cheese because of a medical reason, rather than because of a preference, said his other attorney, Scott Harford.
“There was no option for him in there indicating about an allergy,” Harford said.
In an exclusive statement to NBC News, Olsen said he filed the lawsuit in hopes of “holding food establishments accountable.”
“Allergies should be such a simple thing to be able to cater to as an establishment. There’s no reason why it can’t be clearly listed, options aren’t included when making an order to indicate allergies, and the staff properly trained to handle such a simple thing,” he said by email. “No one should have to fear for their health when they’re just trying to eat a meal.”
Lange called the incident “completely avoidable” and a “traumatic experience” for Olsen. He said that Olsen has recovered physically but that “this is something that still causes him concern, still causes anxiety, when it comes to getting food from restaurants.”
The lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages and a jury trial, accuses McDonald’s of breaching its duty to “produce food that was safe to eat.”
Milk allergies are different from lactose intolerance, which is characterized by nausea, cramps, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms after dairy consumption that are uncomfortable but not life-threatening. With a milk allergy, a person’s immune system overreacts, triggering symptoms from rashes to wheezing to anaphylaxis.
About 2% of children in the U.S. have milk allergies, according to the Mayo Clinic, and while many outgrow them, some do not. In those cases, the only way to prevent allergic reactions is to avoid milk and products that contain milk or milk proteins, the Mayo Clinic says, adding that people with milk allergies should have epinephrine auto-injectors, known as EpiPens, on hand in case of accidental ingestion. Olsen had an EpiPen, but he did not have it with him at the time of his incident, Lange said.
The McDonald’s lawsuit is not the only one focused on milk products filed against a major food chain in recent months. A lawsuit filed in December against doughnut and coffee chain Dunkin’ argues that it is discriminatory to charge customers who cannot consume cow’s milk extra for milk substitutes, such as oat milk. Dunkin’ did not comment on that lawsuit.