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McDonald's Lawsuit Timeline Agreement Settlement Proposed Allocation of Money for "Vegetarian" Recipients List of Vegetarian Appellants Overview
The McDonald s french fry lawsuit has become one of the biggest stories in the vegetarian movement, yet very little about it has appeared in vegetarian publications. The class action suit originated after it was discovered that the fast-food chain had not told vegetarians that its french fries and hash browns had beef in them, contrary to the impression some had after a company press release of July 23, 1990, which stated that McDonald s fries were cooked in 100 percent vegetable oil. But alas, many unfortunate vegetarians did consume McDonald s french fries or hash browns after July 23, 1990, and in doing so unwittingly consumed minuscule amounts of beef.
A lawsuit was filed against the company and a $10 million settlement was agreed upon, with $6 million going to vegetarian groups. But then disputes erupted, not only with McDonald s, but within the vegetarian community as well, over which groups should get the money probably the most serious and most public division in the history of the modern vegetarian movement. The divisions resulted in accusations against some vegetarian groups of sleeping with the enemy and unethical conduct. The case is being appealed, millions of dollars are at stake, and the outcome is in doubt. What s the story? In the Beginning
The controversy began with Eric Schlosser s book Fast Food Nation, published in 2001. Schlosser, not himself vegetarian, noted the source of some of the so-called natural flavors in much fast food, remarking that the natural flavor in McDonald s french fries was derived from beef. Ironically, in light
As many veteran ingredient-readers could quickly tell you. McDonald s quickly issued a denial. One of Schlosser s readers was a Jain who asked McDonald s whether the company s fries contained beef. The list of ingredients provided for their fries (before the lawsuit) included natural flavor. the issue receded in India. and Illinois. including beef as it actually did in this case. At some sites. But in the United States. Hon. were furious. additional lawsuits were filed in Texas. at others. upon hearing about McDonald s statement. and on April 6. However. Hindu nationalists in India. In his order of October 30. 2001 in King County. The Case Against McDonald s McDonald s denies lying about its french fries. and protests were launched at various McDonald s restaurants. California. But this denial provoked another unexpected development. McDonald s backtracked. they turned ugly. Harish Bharti a Seattle lawyer and a native of India then filed a lawsuit on May 1. Washington. When laboratory tests revealed that no animal fat was in the french fries. with windows broken and a statue of Ronald McDonald smeared with cow dung. Richard Siebel. the protests were peaceful. New Jersey. saying it had never claimed its fries were vegetarian and that they had always contained beef flavoring. where the lawsuit was finally negotiated. a publication of the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG). the question of liability for a few specific cases of misinformation to a small number of individuals would be different from a systematic advertising campaign. he . Schlosser got his information from Vegetarian Journal. some McDonald s employees said that the fries were vegetarian. natural flavor can legally include animal products. 2001 the information was published in India-West. did not believe the plaintiff s case was very strong. he cited this email and Schlosser s book as evidence. McDonald s confirmed Schlosser s information by email. But more than that. The judge in this case. a California-based weekly targeting Asian Indians in North America. explaining that french fries sent to India (unlike its North American fries) were free of beef products. The most incriminating evidence was a 1993 letter written by a company employee stating that there were a number of items which vegetarians can enjoy at McDonald s specifically mentioning the french fries and the hash browns. claiming that McDonald s hadn t told the truth about their ingredients.of subsequent developments. 2002.
the case boomeranged into a constant stream of negative publicity about the corporation. but excluded as one of the groups receiving benefits in the settlement. There are roughly 7 million Muslims in the United States. McDonald s had already received stunningly bad publicity in this case. The plaintiffs initially demanded $75 million. 2002. McDonald s offered $5 million. On the other hand. Several hundred Muslims filed objections.remarked: Proving liability on the merits is problematic. They may have calculated that they could ill afford another victory like the infamous McLibel lawsuit in England. according to Khazarian. . with $6 million assigned to vegetarian groups. the plaintiffs had one practical advantage: the area of public relations. Clearly the McDonald s beef was not halal (or kosher. while McDonald s successfully sued two anti-McDonald s campaigners for libel. The Plaintiffs face a substantial risk of obtaining no relief if litigation against McDonald s were pursued. 2002. a procedure roughly similar to kosher. While vegetarian groups were slated to get 60 percent of the settlement. Khazarian stated to me that the fatal flaw in the structure of the settlement is that Muslims are included in the class. Muslim Objections No sooner had the proposed settlement been announced than questions began to be raised about who would receive the money. compared to about 6 million adult vegetarians. In the final settlement approved by the judge. Greg Khazarian represented Muslims who objected to the settlement. the judge said that the Muslims could be accommodated within the parameters of the proposed settlement. At the preliminary hearing on May 1. Muslims were included in the vegetarian category. there was no category for Muslim groups. Muslims usually eat meat. but the meat must be slaughtered in accordance with halal. At a preliminary hearing in May 2002. either). After negotiations. a proposed $10 million settlement was announced on April 26. In that case.
a revised list was approved by the judge over the objections of many vegetarians (see sidebar). Vegetarian Objections When the proposed list of recipients was released in September 2002. The McDonald s argument was that a Muslim who is in McDonald s will be looking for food that is vegetarian. So McDonald s attorneys may have vetoed some groups. on May 19. and EarthSave were missing.) . Eight months later. as the treatment of animals was never an issue in the lawsuit only the treatment of the humans who were deceived by McDonald s publicity. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Moreover. so they should be included in the vegetarian category. there were further objections. and the Preventive Medicine Research Group run by Dean Ornish (PMRI). explains Khazarian. The proposed money for vegetarian groups was to be divided not only among traditional vegetarian groups. McDonald s had to have a hand in the allocation process. animal rights organizations were also specifically excluded by the court. Loma Linda University. don t seem to fit any conceivable definition of a vegetarian group . the University of North Carolina Department of Nutrition.Khazarian disputes the logic that lumps Muslims and vegetarians together. but by the terms of the agreement. What about the groups that are on the list? Two of them. was initially proposed but later disqualified by the judge on technical grounds. the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) and the Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products. 2003. This list was surprising to many vegetarians. the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (VNDPG) of the American Dietetic Association Foundation. My clients don t buy that argument. Why were these and many other groups omitted? We don t know what went on in the attorney s negotiations. but from vegetarians rather than Muslims. Four other research groups also attracted the particular notice of opponents of the allocation: Tufts University. Evidently they were included as a concession to Muslim objections. Many well-known organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM). (A fifth research group. but Muslim groups and organizations which might carry an anti-vegetarian agenda. they are concerned with halal or the foods (especially slaughtered animals) which Muslims are allowed to eat.
He attempted to recruit me. there was considerable divergence of opinion as to which were the good and the bad groups. objected strongly to VNDPG and Tufts but suggested that $1 million should be given to Cornell University for their Program for Lifetime Nutrition. Howard Lyman. If there was anyone else who was active in that effort. and VegNews editor Joseph Connelly. John McDougall. Jeff Nelson went out and recruited most of the people who opposed the settlement [the allocation of funds]. I never heard about it. and Nelson s role in these objections was central. the author of Mad Cowboy and himself a past target of cattle industry lawsuits. a professor at Cornell. and many regard it as a bona fide vegetarian group. and Loma Linda) also appear to have strong support in the vegetarian community. VNDPG has done much valuable work promoting vegetarianism among nutrition professionals. and PMRI and Dean Ornish have done much research supporting the thesis that a strict vegetarian diet can actually help reverse heart disease. a notorious anti-vegetarian organization. however. in fact. PMRI. including T. is unstinting in his criticisms of Tufts. Jack Norris. but I said that I didn t have a dog in that fight and that it would be counterproductive. none has been more passionate or as outspoken than Jeff Nelson. some of the most pioneering research on vegetarianism has come out of Loma Linda University.While all four of these research groups face some vegetarian opposition. . However. among others. Colin Campbell. who heads VegSource Interactive and the website vegsource. John McDougall. In my own personal experience [Tufts] is. submitted declarations to the court questioning the allocation of funds. Jeff Nelson Intervenes The proposed allocation of money has created passionate opposition among some vegetarians. has drawn the special ire of vegetarians. said. Tufts.com. Colin Campbell. three of them (VNDPG. For example: John McDougall objected only to Tufts. Declarations objecting to the settlement were collected and filed at least as early as October 2002. Among these. Numerous well-known vegetarians.
the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) and the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS). Sharon Graff [of NAVS]. they have usually remained at the level of private disagreements. but there are four broad claims made in Nelson s rhetoric. we tried to open a dialogue with them [Jeff Nelson and his allies]. and are they true? It is beyond the scope of this article to consider all the issues involved. but asked that $100. in an explosive article titled Sleeping with the Enemy.Rhoda and Stan Sapon objected to VRG. While there have been vehement disagreements before. Sleeping with the Enemy ? Nelson s tactics in opposing the settlement have provoked intense feelings. Graff cited numerous examples of angry emails that NAVS had received. and the next day Jeff Nelson attacked us on his web site. an NAVS director and vice president] have been under attack since early December  from Jeff s declaration. In December 2002. The university had proposed that its money be spent on a scholarship fund for Vegetarian and Plant-based Nutrition Studies. VRG and NAVS are both older and well-established vegetarian organizations. articles and the spin-off reaction. But they weren t interested in working with us. betrayal.000 be given to the Maimonides Project (a vegetarian hunger relief group which they founded). in an email sent to FARM president Alex Hershaft in February 2003. Nelson attacked the two most important vegetarian groups that were slated to receive settlement money. What were Nelson s accusations. and hypocrisy. Cory Fein (one of the plaintiffs attorneys) said. These comments prominently featured on the VegSource web site for many months are unprecedented in the history of the western vegetarian movement. and even when public have seldom. We said that we would be willing to work with them to form a committee that would screen applicants for the scholarships at Tufts so that only students committed to vegetarianism would receive them. stated that NAVS and Brian [Graff. Tufts University was the subject of last-minute negotiations when hearings were being held in early 2003. The effects of these accusations have been very significant. . involved charges of immorality. deception. if ever.
VRG s cozy relationship with McDonald s. can be counterproductive at times. Nelson states: [VRG] has a close relationship with McDonald s. at other times encouragement (emphasis in original). and counsels caution. apparently oblivious to the fact that it disproves his claim is that the approach of many people quickly attacking a company for what they re not doing. 2. Sometimes protest is called for. rather than giving assistance and encouragement for what they are doing. this comment was not a public position. Like VRG. VRG also disparaged this lawsuit and people who sue fast food chains. This reply implies only that lawsuits may be a bad tactic. why should they now reap the benefits? In their magazine. Moreover. What VRG does say and Nelson actually cites this in his declaration to the court.1. is not clear. or just the opinion of the authors. asserting in their editorial that such lawsuits do harm to the vegetarian cause. Even if true. Since VRG and NAVS rejected the lawsuit. [Brian] Graff did not support the filing of the lawsuit. Whether this article constitutes an official stance of VRG. The refusal to support the lawsuit initially. was not a position of NAVS. this editorial was certainly not a comment on this particular lawsuit. VRG has the same public stance on natural flavors for which McDonald s was sued. Vegetarian Journal did publish an article by Davida Gypsy Breier and Sarah Blum which lists vegetarian items in fast food restaurants and states we ve labeled items as vegetarian when there could be a few maybe ingredients. Moreover. such as mono. The question of how strict vegetarian advocacy should be is often discussed in the movement. promoting their products. Nelson argues. and only rejected financial support for the lawsuit. . with some vegetarians using references to the vegan police to make a case for a more casual approach. commented Nelson. not the lawsuit itself. The source of the statement that Brian Graff did not support the filing of the lawsuit is apparently an offhand private conversation that Brian had with vegetarian activist Lige Weill in which Weill urged Graff to support the lawsuit financially. since it went to press before the lawsuit was filed. Think through your strategies.and diglycerides and/or natural flavors everyone draws the line as to what he or she will eat in a different place.
but his failure to disseminate it made it very difficult. Nelson s statement that McDonald s proposed to reward NAVS with $1 million for its unethical complicity with McDonald s certainly suggests the possibility. justify the description of VRG s relationship with McDonald s as cozy ? When asked about this. NAVS failure to report the lawsuit to other groups. above one of his stories attacking VRG and NAVS. it implies collusion. 3. it was never submitted to NAVS We most certainly had not been provided information pertinent to others. 4. Nelson wrote: Brian Graff of NAVS kept to himself his special relationship in the case This is more than unethical. if not impossible. and did mention McDonald s favorably in one Vegetarian Journal article. it unfairly takes advantage of privileged information. president of the American Vegan Society. We were willing to place the [legal] notice [from the court] and apology [from McDonald s] in Vegetarian Voice. The problem here is.VRG did issue a press release devoted to promoting McDonald s breakfast options in 1996. out of the many dozens that VRG has issued. . However. The aiding and abetting of McDonald s by VRG and NAVS and the suggestion of sleeping with the enemy. But does one press release about McDonald s in 1996. nor does he provide any particular evidence to support any interpretation of his conclusions. what is the nature of aiding and abetting and what form did it take? What does sleeping with the enemy mean? Nelson does not make it clear. And though Nelson gives no evidence for this and never uses this word. Freya Dinshah. Sharon Graff commented. smiling and burning money. so there was nothing for us to conceal. commented this is silly. consensual. of a quid pro quo as part of an explicit deal. coordinated activity of a secret. Sleeping with the enemy implies joint. The legal notice was eventually published in VegNews and Satya. and traitorous sort in short. He had a moral responsibility to the class of plaintiffs to share this information. for other vegetarian organizations to apply. there was a picture of a devil figure. before they knew of the problem with McDonald s french fries. if not the probability.
Vegetarian Leaders Reactions A number of prominent vegetarians declined to comment on Nelson s tactics or any other aspect of the case. I think that I would not label all the people on his team as tainted with the same brush. even the Muslim groups. But no matter how well-meaning Jeff was in his actions and intentions. was stirring the pot ? It was Jeff Nelson. NAVS. I know nothing about it. Jeff Nelson is also a friend of mine. Sue Havala [Hobbs] is a friend of mine. Every person within the movement could be accused of that. and many of the others who are involved in this conflict. . John Robbins said: "With all the legal wranglings and obvious misunderstanding and turbulence. no interest. My only interest is that Tufts not get any of the money." John McDougall was emphatic in saying that my only beef is with Tufts. I am sorry to see things have become so divisive. Several prominent vegetarians. They are good people. they got a sanitized version of events from Jeff. And who. I have nothing to do with it. This statement really concerns me. and I know she has a lot of integrity. Howard Lyman had a different response to Jeff Nelson s suggestion that VRG and NAVS were sleeping with the enemy. I asked. he specifically declined to make criticisms of any other groups except Tufts whether VRG. and also has a lot of integrity. In comments to me. there are it is those who are stirring the pot. These two people. he said in response to questions relating to the charges concerning NAVS and VRG. including the leaders of VRG and Jeff Nelson and many of his allies. in what he did he was absolutely wrong. have all contributed enormously to the veg cause and movement. however. and their comments were interesting and revealing. were willing to speak. Are there people who are really giving aid and comfort to the enemy? Yes. or any of the other groups slated to receive money. I spent the majority of my life in that camp. I really am not informed enough to offer anything worthwhile by way of comments.
In contrast to the wide diversity of views expressed by vegetarians submitting declarations to the court previously. she replied. No. the other by vegetarians). but to all of the research organizations Tufts. 2002. When I asked. and he s been a huge boon to the animal rights movement [but] over the years I ve had differences of opinion with Jeff. Challenging nonvegetarian groups that got the money is one thing. A Shift in Strategy The judge approved the settlement on October 30. it s despicable. At least one of the appellants. While Nelson clearly has close ties to several of the vegetarian appellants. When the vegetarian appeal was filed on June 16. In between these two events. Alex Hershaft. but going after other vegetarian groups is another.Bruce Friedrich (right) responds to questions from Keith Akers (left) about the lawsuit When I asked Bruce Friedrich if he thought that the sleeping with the enemy suggestion had any validity. he responded simply No I adore Jeff Nelson. The second substantial change was the disappearance of Jeff Nelson as the key figure among the vegetarian objectors. the strategy of the vegetarians objecting to the allocation appears to have shifted in several ways. Who is any of us to be the arbiter? I was very upset when he [Jeff Nelson] set himself up in this way. Loma Linda. Two appeals were filed shortly thereafter (one by Muslims. The brief also argues that the amount of money given to the vegetarian organizations such as VRG and NAVS is excessive as well. Author Carol Adams said. 2003. 2003. Nelson was not one of the appellants. and the allocation of funds on May 19. I think it s horrible the hurt that has been done. made behind-the-scenes attempts to effect a reconciliation between Nelson . 2003. the reactions to the settlement have been cruel. and PMRI. The first change is embodied in the vegetarian appellants brief filed by Michael Hyman and received by the court on December 11. it objects not only to the two Muslim groups receiving money. I d like to think that we wouldn t engage in horizontal hostility. Freya Dinshah agreed. was VRG sleeping with the enemy. VNDPG. I don t think NAVS is either. not all of them share Nelson s views about NAVS and VRG sleeping with the enemy.
affirming that NAVS had indeed acted ethically. The brief does not specify what the correct allocation should be. repeating arguments used against VRG in Nelson s Sleeping with the Enemy. like the Vegetarian Resource Group. the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the ADAF. nor does it need to A vegetarian organization is an association of persons organized around the idea of vegetarianism. it belongs to a class of people. or any non-Arab restaurant. When I asked why vegetarian money was given to the Muslim halal groups. all Muslims who follow the Halal dietary rules function as vegetarians when they eat at a fast food restaurant. but asks that the allocation should be reversed and sent back to the circuit court for further action. It will go to a Scholarship Fund for Vegetarian and Plant-based Nutrition Studies. But no reconciliation occurred. and Tufts University. Muslims were also offended by McDonald s conduct. The argument of the appellants brief is straightforward. he said. It also argues against giving so much money to VRG. The money does not belong to any organization. The money will not go to Tufts general fund. Cory Fein had a different view of things. They're committed to objective scientific research. The brief also argues against giving so much money to NAVS because it is a pint-sized organization. However some of the money went to vegetarian projects administered by Preventive Medicine Research Institute. Vegetarian Vision. and the American Vegan Society. it says: The settlement does not define vegetarian organization. The Future? . Tufts is nationally known for its nutrition program. Loma Linda University. Because beef served at non-Arab restaurants is not prepared in accordance with Halal rules. Discussing the definition of vegetarian group. Others who are not strictly vegetarian would be offended by beef in McDonald s french fries those who eat fish but don t eat beef people who have no moral objections to eating beef but are avoiding it for health reasons Muslims who follow halal dietary rules.and NAVS and get NAVS to join the appeal. But how could Tufts be considered a vegetarian organization ? Fein responded: Most of the money went to fund projects administered by organizations that most people would consider to be vegetarian groups. North American Vegetarian Society.
McDonald s is probably laughing at the whole bunch of us. which could conceivably benefit one or another of very different vegetarian groups. It has been very divisive of the vegetarian community. . The real news is neither the beef in the french fries. As Freya Dinshah comments. which now seems like a distant memory. What is absolutely unprecedented in the history of the modern vegetarian movement is the charges made by some vegetarians against others. which could be endlessly debated and never resolved.The last chapter of the McDonald s saga has yet to be written. Appeals are in process. nor even the question of who should get the money. Millions of dollars are at stake. some of which seem to be at each others throats.
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