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McDonald’s Lawsuit —
What’s the Story?  

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 of subsequent developments, Schlosser got his information from Vegetarian Journal, a publication of the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG).

One of Schlosser’s readers was a Jain who asked McDonald’s whether the company’s fries contained beef. McDonald’s confirmed Schlosser’s information by email, and on April 6, 2001 the information was published in India-West, a California-based weekly targeting Asian Indians in North America. Harish Bharti—a Seattle lawyer and a native of India—then filed a lawsuit on May 1, 2001 in King County, Washington, claiming that McDonald’s hadn’t told the truth about their ingredients; he cited this email and Schlosser’s book as evidence. McDonald’s quickly issued a denial, saying it had never claimed its fries were vegetarian and that they had always contained beef flavoring.

But this denial provoked another unexpected development. Hindu nationalists in India, upon hearing about McDonald’s statement, were furious, and protests were launched at various McDonald’s restaurants. At some sites, the protests were peaceful; at others, they turned ugly, with windows broken and a statue of Ronald McDonald smeared with cow dung.

McDonald’s backtracked, explaining that french fries sent to India (unlike its North American fries) were free of beef products. When laboratory tests revealed that no animal fat was in the french fries, the issue receded in India. But in the United States, additional lawsuits were filed in Texas, New Jersey, California, and Illinois, where the lawsuit was finally negotiated.  

The Case Against McDonald’s  

McDonald’s denies lying about its french fries. The list of ingredients provided for their fries (before the lawsuit) included “natural flavor.” As many veteran ingredient-readers could quickly tell you, “natural flavor” can legally include animal products, including beef—as it actually did in this case. But more than that, some McDonald’s employees said that the fries were vegetarian. 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.

However, 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. The judge in this case, Hon. Richard Siebel, did not believe the plaintiff’s case was very strong. In his order of October 30, 2002, he remarked: “Proving liability on the merits is problematic. The Plaintiffs face a substantial risk of obtaining no relief if litigation against McDonald’s were pursued.”

On the other hand, the plaintiffs had one practical advantage: the area of public relations. McDonald’s had already received stunningly bad publicity in this case. They may have calculated that they could ill afford another “victory” like the infamous “McLibel” lawsuit in England. In that case, while McDonald’s successfully sued two anti-McDonald’s campaigners for libel, the case boomeranged into a constant stream of negative publicity about the corporation.

The plaintiffs initially demanded $75 million; McDonald’s offered $5 million. After negotiations, a proposed $10 million settlement was announced on April 26, 2002, with $6 million assigned to “vegetarian groups.”

Muslim Objections  

No sooner had the proposed settlement been announced than questions began to be raised about who would receive the money. At a preliminary hearing in May 2002, Greg Khazarian represented Muslims who objected to the settlement. Khazarian stated to me that “the fatal flaw in the structure of the settlement is that Muslims are included in the class, but excluded as one of the groups receiving benefits in the settlement.” Several hundred Muslims filed objections.

Muslims usually eat meat, but the meat must be slaughtered in accordance with “halal,” a procedure roughly similar to kosher. Clearly the McDonald’s beef was not “halal” (or kosher, either). There are roughly 7 million Muslims in the United States, compared to about 6 million adult vegetarians. While vegetarian groups were slated to get 60 percent of the settlement, there was no category for Muslim groups.

At the preliminary hearing on May 1, 2002, the judge said that the Muslims “could be accommodated within the parameters of the proposed settlement,” according to Khazarian. In the final settlement approved by the judge, Muslims were included in the vegetarian category.

Khazarian disputes the logic that lumps Muslims and vegetarians together. “The McDonald’s argument was that a Muslim who is in McDonald’s will be looking for food that is vegetarian, so they should be included in the vegetarian category,” explains Khazarian. “My clients don’t buy that argument.”

Vegetarian Objections

When the proposed list of recipients was released in September 2002, there were further objections, but from vegetarians rather than Muslims. The proposed money for “vegetarian groups” was to be divided not only among traditional vegetarian groups, but Muslim groups and organizations which might carry an anti-vegetarian agenda. Eight months later, on May 19, 2003, a revised list was approved by the judge over the objections of many vegetarians (see sidebar).

This list was surprising to many vegetarians. Many well-known organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM), Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), and EarthSave were missing. Why were these and many other groups omitted?

We don’t know what went on in the attorney’s negotiations, but by the terms of the agreement, McDonald’s had to have a hand in the allocation process. So McDonald’s attorneys may have vetoed some groups. Moreover, animal rights organizations were also specifically excluded by the court, 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.

What about the groups that are on the list? 

Two of them, the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) and the Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products, don’t seem to fit any conceivable definition of a “vegetarian group”; they are concerned with “halal” or the foods (especially slaughtered animals) which Muslims are allowed to eat. Evidently they were included as a concession to Muslim objections.

Four other “research” groups also attracted the particular notice of opponents of the allocation: Tufts University, Loma Linda University, the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (VNDPG) of the American Dietetic Association Foundation, and the Preventive Medicine Research Group run by Dean Ornish (PMRI). (A fifth “research” group, the University of North Carolina Department of Nutrition, was initially proposed but later disqualified by the judge on technical grounds.)

While all four of these research groups face some vegetarian opposition, three of them (VNDPG, PMRI, 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 many regard it as a bona fide vegetarian group; some of the most pioneering research on vegetarianism has come out of Loma Linda University; and PMRI and Dean Ornish have done much research supporting the thesis that a strict vegetarian diet can actually help reverse heart disease.

Tufts, however, has drawn the special ire of vegetarians. John McDougall, among others, is unstinting in his criticisms of Tufts. “In my own personal experience [Tufts] is, in fact, a notorious anti-vegetarian organization.”

Jeff Nelson Intervenes

The proposed allocation of money has created passionate opposition among some vegetarians. Among these, none has been more passionate or as outspoken than Jeff Nelson, who heads VegSource Interactive and the website vegsource.com.

Declarations objecting to the settlement were collected and filed at least as early as October 2002, and Nelson’s role in these objections was central. Howard Lyman, the author of Mad Cowboy and himself a past target of cattle industry lawsuits, said, “Jeff Nelson went out and recruited most of the people who opposed the settlement [the allocation of funds]. If there was anyone else who was active in that effort, I never heard about it. He attempted to recruit me, but I said that I didn’t have a dog in that fight and that it would be counterproductive.”

Numerous well-known vegetarians, including T. Colin Campbell, John McDougall, Jack Norris, and VegNews editor Joseph Connelly, submitted declarations to the court questioning the allocation of funds. However, there was considerable divergence of opinion as to which were the “good” and the “bad” groups. For example:

— John McDougall objected only to Tufts.

— Colin Campbell, a professor at Cornell, objected strongly to VNDPG and Tufts but suggested that $1 million should be given to Cornell University for their Program for Lifetime Nutrition.

— Rhoda and Stan Sapon objected to VRG, but asked that $100,000 be given to the Maimonides Project (a vegetarian hunger relief group which they founded).

Tufts University was the subject of last-minute negotiations when hearings were being held in early 2003. The university had proposed that its money be spent on a scholarship fund for Vegetarian and Plant-based Nutrition Studies. Cory Fein (one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys) said, “we tried to open a dialogue with them [Jeff Nelson and his allies]. 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. But they weren’t interested in working with us, and the next day Jeff Nelson attacked us on his web site.”

“Sleeping with the Enemy”?

Nelson’s tactics in opposing the settlement have provoked intense feelings. In December 2002, Nelson attacked the two most important vegetarian groups that were slated to receive settlement money, the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) and the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS), in an explosive article titled “Sleeping with the Enemy.” VRG and NAVS are both older and well-established vegetarian organizations.  

These comments — prominently featured on the VegSource web site for many months — are unprecedented in the history of the western vegetarian movement. While there have been vehement disagreements before, they have usually remained at the level of private disagreements, and even when public have seldom, if ever, involved charges of immorality, deception, betrayal, and hypocrisy.

The effects of these accusations have been very significant. Sharon Graff [of NAVS], in an email sent to FARM president Alex Hershaft in February 2003, stated that “NAVS and Brian [Graff, an NAVS director and vice president] have been under attack since early December [2002] from Jeff’s declaration, articles and the spin-off reaction.” Graff cited numerous examples of angry emails that NAVS had received.

What were Nelson’s accusations, and are they true? It is beyond the scope of this article to consider all the issues involved, but there are four broad claims made in Nelson’s rhetoric.

1.  The refusal to support the lawsuit initially.

Since VRG and NAVS rejected the lawsuit, Nelson argues, why should they now reap the benefits? “In their magazine, VRG also disparaged this lawsuit and people who sue fast food chains, asserting in their editorial that such lawsuits do harm to the vegetarian cause,” commented Nelson. “Like VRG, [Brian] Graff did not support the filing of the lawsuit.”

What VRG does say—and Nelson actually cites this in his declaration to the court, 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, rather than giving assistance and encouragement for what they are doing, can be counterproductive at times.  Think through your strategies.  Sometimes protest is called for, at other times encouragement” (emphasis in original). This reply implies only that lawsuits may be a bad tactic, and counsels caution. Moreover, this editorial was certainly not a comment on this particular lawsuit, since it went to press before the lawsuit was filed.

The source of the statement that Brian Graff did not support the filing of the lawsuit is apparently an off-hand private conversation that Brian had with vegetarian activist Lige Weill in which Weill urged Graff to support the lawsuit financially. Even if true, this comment was not a public position, was not a position of NAVS, and only rejected financial support for the lawsuit, not the lawsuit itself.

2. VRG’s “cozy” relationship with McDonald’s.

Nelson states: “[VRG] has a close relationship with McDonald’s, promoting their products.” Moreover, “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, such as mono- and diglycerides and/or natural flavors … everyone draws the line as to what he or she will eat in a different place.” Whether this article constitutes an official “stance” of VRG, or just the opinion of the authors, is not clear. The question of how strict vegetarian advocacy should be is often discussed in the movement, with some vegetarians using references to the “vegan police” to make a case for a more casual approach.

VRG did issue a press release devoted to promoting McDonald’s breakfast options in 1996, before they knew of the problem with McDonald’s french fries, and did mention McDonald’s favorably in one Vegetarian Journal article. But does one press release about McDonald’s in 1996, out of the many dozens that VRG has issued, justify the description of VRG’s relationship with McDonald’s as “cozy”? When asked about this, Freya Dinshah, president of the American Vegan Society, commented “this is silly.”

3.  NAVS’ failure to report the lawsuit to other groups.

Nelson wrote: “Brian Graff of NAVS kept to himself his special relationship in the case… This is more than unethical; it unfairly takes advantage of privileged information. He had a moral responsibility to the class of plaintiffs to share this information, but his failure to disseminate it made it very difficult, if not impossible, for other vegetarian organizations to apply.”

Sharon Graff commented, “We were willing to place the [legal] notice [from the court] and apology [from McDonald’s] in Vegetarian Voice. However, it was never submitted to NAVS… We most certainly had not been provided information pertinent to others, so there was nothing for us to conceal.” The legal notice was eventually published in VegNews and Satya.

4. The “aiding and abetting” of McDonald’s by VRG and NAVS and the suggestion of “sleeping with the enemy.” 

The problem here is, 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, nor does he provide any particular evidence to support any interpretation of his conclusions.

Nelson’s statement that McDonald’s proposed to “reward” NAVS with $1 million for its “unethical” complicity with McDonald’s certainly suggests the possibility, if not the probability, of a quid pro quo as part of an explicit deal. “Sleeping with the enemy” implies joint, coordinated activity of a secret, consensual, and traitorous sort—in short, it implies collusion. And though Nelson gives no evidence for this and never uses this word, above one of his stories attacking VRG and NAVS, there was a picture of a devil figure, smiling and burning money.

Vegetarian Leaders’ Reactions

A number of prominent vegetarians declined to comment on Nelson’s tactics or any other aspect of the case, including the leaders of VRG and Jeff Nelson and many of his allies. Several prominent vegetarians, however, were willing to speak, and their comments were interesting and revealing.

John Robbins said:

"With all the legal wranglings and obvious misunderstanding and turbulence, I really am not informed enough to offer anything worthwhile by way of comments. Sue Havala [Hobbs] is a friend of mine, and I know she has a lot of integrity. Jeff Nelson is also a friend of mine, and also has a lot of integrity. These two people, and many of the others who are involved in this conflict, have all contributed enormously to the veg cause and movement. I am sorry to see things have become so divisive."

John McDougall was emphatic in saying that “my only beef is with Tufts.” In comments to me, he specifically declined to make criticisms of any other groups except Tufts—whether VRG, NAVS, or any of the other groups slated to receive money, even the Muslim groups. “I have nothing to do with it, no interest, I know nothing about it,” he said in response to questions relating to the charges concerning NAVS and VRG. “My only interest is that Tufts not get any of the money.”

Howard Lyman had a different response to Jeff Nelson’s suggestion that VRG and NAVS were “sleeping with the enemy.” “Every person within the movement could be accused of that. I spent the majority of my life in that camp. This statement really concerns me. Are there people who are really giving aid and comfort to the enemy? Yes, there are—it is those who are stirring the pot.”

And who, I asked, was “stirring the pot”? “It was Jeff Nelson; I think that I would not label all the people on his team as tainted with the same brush. They are good people; they got a sanitized version of events from Jeff. But no matter how well-meaning Jeff was in his actions and intentions, in what he did he was absolutely wrong.”  

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, and he’s been a huge boon to the animal rights movement … [but] over the years I’ve had differences of opinion with Jeff.”

Author Carol Adams said, “the reactions to the settlement have been cruel. Challenging nonvegetarian groups that got the money is one thing, but going after other vegetarian groups is another. I’d like to think that we wouldn’t engage in horizontal hostility. Who is any of us to be the arbiter? I was very upset when he [Jeff Nelson] set himself up in this way.”

Freya Dinshah agreed. When I asked, was VRG “sleeping with the enemy,” she replied, “No. I don’t think NAVS is either. I think it’s horrible the hurt that has been done, it’s despicable.”

A Shift in Strategy

The judge approved the settlement on October 30, 2002, and the allocation of funds on May 19, 2003. Two appeals were filed shortly thereafter (one by Muslims, the other by vegetarians). In between these two events, the strategy of the vegetarians objecting to the allocation appears to have shifted in several ways.

The first change is embodied in the vegetarian appellants’ brief filed by Michael Hyman and received by the court on December 11, 2003. In contrast to the wide diversity of views expressed by vegetarians submitting declarations to the court previously, it objects not only to the two Muslim groups receiving money, but to all of the “research” organizations—Tufts, Loma Linda, VNDPG, and PMRI. The brief also argues that the amount of money given to the vegetarian organizations such as VRG and NAVS is excessive as well.

The second substantial change was the disappearance of Jeff Nelson as the key figure among the vegetarian objectors. When the vegetarian appeal was filed on June 16, 2003, Nelson was not one of the appellants. While Nelson clearly has close ties to several of the vegetarian appellants, not all of them share Nelson’s views about NAVS and VRG “sleeping with the enemy.” At least one of the appellants, Alex Hershaft, made behind-the-scenes attempts to effect a reconciliation between Nelson and NAVS and get NAVS to join the appeal, affirming that NAVS had indeed acted ethically. But no reconciliation occurred.

The argument of the appellants’ brief is straightforward. Discussing the definition of “vegetarian group,” it says:

“The settlement does not define “vegetarian organization,” nor does it need to… A vegetarian organization… is an association of persons organized around the idea of vegetarianism.”

The brief also argues against giving so much money to NAVS because it is “a pint-sized organization.” It also argues against giving so much money to VRG, repeating arguments used against VRG in Nelson’s “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The brief does not specify what the correct allocation should be, but asks that the allocation should be reversed and sent back to the circuit court for further action.

Cory Fein had a different view of things. When I asked why “vegetarian” money was given to the Muslim “halal” groups, he said, “Muslims were also offended by McDonald’s conduct. Because beef served at non-Arab restaurants is not prepared in accordance with Halal rules, all Muslims who follow the Halal dietary rules function as vegetarians when they eat at a fast food restaurant, or any non-Arab restaurant.” 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. The money does not belong to any organization; it belongs to a class of people.”

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, like the Vegetarian Resource Group, North American Vegetarian Society, the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the ADAF, Vegetarian Vision, and the American Vegan Society. However some of the money went to vegetarian projects administered by Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Loma Linda University, and Tufts University. Tufts is nationally known for its nutrition program. They're committed to objective scientific research. … The money will not go to Tufts’ general fund. It will go to a Scholarship Fund for Vegetarian and Plant-based Nutrition Studies.”

The Future?

The last chapter of the McDonald’s saga has yet to be written. Appeals are in process. Millions of dollars are at stake, which could conceivably benefit one or another of very different vegetarian groups, some of which seem to be at each others’ throats.

The real news is neither the beef in the french fries, which now seems like a distant memory, nor even the question of who should get the money, which could be endlessly debated and never resolved. What is absolutely unprecedented in the history of the modern vegetarian movement is the charges made by some vegetarians against others. As Freya Dinshah comments, “McDonald’s is probably laughing at the whole bunch of us. It has been very divisive of the vegetarian community.”

Keith Akers is the author of The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity