The McDonald’s restaurant in Daechi-dong -- a mecca of private educational academies in southern Seoul -- usually bustles with kids. But at lunchtime on Aug. 9, not a single kid could be spotted. While a few adults were lounging on the first floor, the second floor was completely empty.
“I just came here to chat with my friend. I don’t bring my kids to McDonald’s anymore, especially after hearing about the hamburger disease case,” said one woman who has a nine-year-old son. Instead of hamburgers and fries, she was having a cup of coffee.
In early July, news broke out of a four-year-old girl being diagnosed with Hemolytic uremic syndrome, more commonly known as hamburger disease, after eating at a McDonald’s outlet in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. The disease is usually known to be caused by consuming bacteria from contaminated food like undercooked hamburger patties. The girl suffered kidney failure and is now facing a lifetime of dialysis.
Since then, several other people have stepped up, saying they too suffered from similar illnesses. A few have also referred their case to the prosecution.
Meanwhile, although it has been over a month, fear of the disease continues to linger.
“Even before the news broke out, I seldom took my kids to fast-food restaurants. Now after hearing about this case, I don’t let them eat hamburgers at all, especially not at McDonald’s,” said another woman who has a 12- year-old child.
The fear seems to have extended to other fast-food franchises such as Burger King, also based in the US, and Japan-based Mos Burger.
“I came to get something to drink, but my kids wanted to have a hamburger, so I just let them have it this one time,” a woman sitting at a Burger King outlet with her two kids told The Investor.
One woman at Mos Burger said she chose the place based on the belief that it would be healthier than McDonald’s or Burger King. But she seemed to have some qualms, since her son was having a chicken cutlet burger, and not a beef patty.
“The news about hamburger disease caused a negative perception of fast-food restaurants in general. But it did not have a direct impact on us,” said an employee at Mos Burger.
The fear among children, meanwhile, appears to be more intense. They keep hearing rumors that the four-year-old girl died from eating a hamburger.
“My mom told me not to eat at McDonald’s because I could die. I haven’t been eating hamburgers for a while, and now I’m used to not eating them at all,” Jin Yoon-sung, a 10-year-old boy said.
“When I told my mother that I want to eat at McDonald’s, she outright refused and explained that it’s because of the hamburger disease. A lot of my friends don’t eat hamburgers anymore,” Jung Yoon-kyo, a nine-year old girl said.
Even without their parent’s advice, some kids voluntarily avoid eating hamburgers. “I heard about hamburger disease when I was in a McDonald’s outlet. After that day, I don’t go there anymore. I don’t want to die,” said 10-year-old Lee Dong-hwan.
The prosecution is currently looking into all the charges regarding the hamburger disease and will soon start probing McDonald’s Korea.
The fast-food chain, meanwhile, has become embroiled in yet another scandal involving food safety. A regional court on Aug. 10 dismissed an injunction request filed by the local unit of McDonald’s, seeking to stop the Korea Consumer Agency from releasing its report on hamburger patties.
The agency’s report showed that McDonald’s burgers have excessive levels of Staphylococcus aureus, a type of bacteria that often causes respiratory infections and food poisoning. Its burgers, however, were not found to have the bacteria causing hamburger disease.
“We regret but respect the court’s decision to dismiss our injunction request,” said a McDonald’s spokesperson. “We are currently reviewing whether to file a lawsuit against KCA for conducting the probe without following proper procedures.”
By Song Seung-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org