What’s the Story?
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
Case Against 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
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
about the groups that are on
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.
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.)
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.”
with the Enemy”?
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.
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.
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  from
Jeff’s declaration, articles and the spin-off reaction.” Graff cited
numerous examples of angry emails that NAVS had received.
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.
refusal to support the lawsuit initially.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
failure to report the lawsuit to other groups.
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.”
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.
The “aiding and
abetting” of McDonald’s by VRG and NAVS and the suggestion of
“sleeping with the enemy.”
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.
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
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
"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."
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.”
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
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.”
Friedrich (right) responds to questions from Keith
Akers (left) about the lawsuit
I asked Bruce Friedrich if he thought that the “sleeping with the
enemy” suggestion had any validity, he responded simply “No …
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
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
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.”
Shift in Strategy
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.
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.
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
Nelson clearly has close ties to several of the vegetarian
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.
argument of the appellants’ brief is straightforward. Discussing the
definition of “vegetarian group,” it says:
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Akers is the author of The Lost
Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity