A McDonald’s franchise in Canada has apologized after serving a pregnant woman a cup of cleaning fluid instead of coffee, a mistake the company said has occurred in the past with other customers.
The woman, Sarah Douglas, 31, who is eight months pregnant with her third child, ordered a medium latte Sunday at a McDonald’s in Lethbridge, a city in Alberta, Canada, on the way to her son’s baseball tournament.
Driving on the highway shortly after, she flipped open the spout on the lid and took a sip. Immediately, she knew something was wrong.
“It just felt like my mouth was burning,” she said.
Douglas pulled over to a ditch on the side of the road and “immediately spit all of it out,” she said. Then she pulled off the lid and realized “it wasn’t a latte at all.”
The cup was about three-fourths full with a “murky brown” liquid, she said. “You could tell that it had kind of been eaten away at the seam.”
She quickly drove back to the restaurant and told the supervisor that she had just drank a chemical.
“He asked if I wanted another latte,” she said. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Another worker soon discovered that the latte machine was hooked up to a cleaning solution used to remove milk residue.
Dan Brown, the owner of the franchise, later called Douglas to apologize and issued a statement on the matter.
“McDonald’s is renowned for its food safety protocols and I am sorry that this happened in my restaurant here in Lethbridge,” Brown said.
“What happened is that the machine was being cleaned — as it is every morning. Unfortunately, the milk supply line was connected to the cleaning solution while this guest’s drink was made,” he said. “We have taken immediate action to review the proper cleaning procedures with the team and have put additional signage up as an added reminder.”
Douglas asked to photograph the cleaning agent, and an employee brought her the jug. He was wearing rubber gloves, she said, and for good reason. The chemicals cause “serious eye irritation,” the label warned, and “may cause an allergic skin reaction.”
Douglas called poison control and learned that this particular cleanser was acid-based, she said, but she didn’t have any symptoms that would require a trip to the hospital. What she did have was a fuzzy, burning sensation in her mouth that she said didn’t disappear for at least 45 minutes.
“It took a couple of days for the smell and the taste to even leave my mind,” Douglas said.
Lethbridge News Now, a local news organization, was first to report the episode.
Alberta Health Services, the health authority for the province, investigated the franchise this week and “became aware that a similar incident had occurred about a month previously,” said Gwen Wirth, a spokeswoman for the agency. She declined to provide further details.
After Douglas went public with her story, a man who lives in Alberta told CBC News that the same thing happened to him in December, but at a different McDonald’s location.
“We are aware that there are other isolated incidents of this nature,” said Kristen Hunter, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s. “Even one incident is too many. While the specialty coffee machines and usage procedures are of the highest industry standards, we have immediately reinforced proper cleaning procedures with all McDonald’s restaurants.”
Despite the safety methods in place at McDonald’s and at other large corporations, there are several examples in recent years of customers receiving tainted drinks.
In 2015, a Seattle-area woman sued Starbucks after she drank a hot chocolate tainted with a coffee machine cleaner that she said caused her to suffer medical problems. The same year, a Utah woman sued the coffee company after she said her throat was burned with the same cleaner, and an Indianapolis police officer wound up in the hospital because he drank a McDonald’s iced tea that his family said was contaminated with cleaning chemicals.
In 2016, a woman in Texas said she found two cleaning tablets in her Starbucks venti mocha, something she didn’t discover until she had drank half of it and developed a stomachache.
Starbucks serves millions of customers every day, as does McDonald’s. The number of known instances of tainted drinks being served is relatively small. But it is still a cause for concern, Douglas said — especially for parents who might buy hot chocolate for their children or other foods that are dispensed from similar machines.
“A child could have easily been a victim of this had it not happened to me,” she said.
Food-borne illness has also been a concern for McDonald’s, which was in the news recently for serving salads linked to cyclosporiasis illnesses that have sickened 395 people in 15 states.
Douglas said that by speaking about her experience she hoped to educate the public and also push the food industry to be more stringent in implementing safety protocols.
“This was a preventable mistake,” she said. “Big as McDonald’s is, there’s no excuse.”