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One reaction to the McDonald's lawsuit: some fast food chains are now more truthful about their products.  But . . . 

McDonald's Lawsuit Fries Vegetarian Nerves

by Keith Akers

(Note: this article originally appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of Vegetarian Living; online version revised 5/27/2003.  It has some minor factual errors which I have corrected, I hope, with material in brackets "[]", but documents my opinions on the subject at the time.)

Years ago, we heard good news: McDonald's french fries were vegetarian, in fact vegan!

But then, some years later, we heard bad news: McDonald's french fries were not vegetarian at all; they had beef fat in them. They had lied to us! Vegetarians were outraged. Some vegetarians sued.

And then, good news: the lawsuit was successful! $10 million in damages was awarded, with $6 million specifically earmarked to vegetarian groups.

But now for the bad news, and the subject of this article. VegSource, the internet site at www.vegsource.com -- which claims to be the most popular food site on the internet, with 1.4 million unique visitors every month -- has for months featured an article titled "Sleeping With the Enemy." According to Jeff Nelson at VegSource, the settlement process actually gives money earmarked for "vegetarian groups" to some anti-vegetarian groups! And what's even worse, this has been done with the cooperation of some prominent vegetarian groups! "A few vegetarian organizations like the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) and the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) have acted out of such extreme self-interest that they are aiding and abetting the attorneys who are perpetrating this outrage."

So is this true?

Well, not quite. There are three points I want to make in the course of this article: (1) while serious questions surround the allocation of payments, there is no evidence VRG and NAVS were "in collusion" with McDonald's to betray vegetarian ideals; (2) the question of what constitutes a "vegetarian group" is considerably more complex than initially appears; and finally (3) the way that VegSource and the other objectors proceeded created serious problems both before the court and within the movement.


[Nelson clearly implies "collusion" between McDonald's, VRG, and NAVS, but never uses this term in his article.  Lawyer Bharti did directly make this accusation, however.]

The $6 million earmarked for vegetarian groups is supposed to go to a number of different groups: VRG is to get $1.4 million, $1 million goes to NAVS, $800,000 goes to Tufts University, $500,000 goes for the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group in the American Dietetic Association [Foundation], $500,000 to the Preventive Medicine Research Institute (Dean Ornish's group), $500,000 to the American Vegan Society (AVS), and the balance to Loma Linda University, the University of North Carolina Nutrition Department, Vegetarian Vision, and three [actually, two] Muslim groups which seem to be concerned about "halal" (the proper methods of slaughtering animals). The judge finalized this list on March 25, denying most of the objections made by VegSource, but struck the University of North Carolina from the list for technical reasons.  [The money which was to be given to UNC was then distributed to the other "research" groups -- Tufts, Loma Linda, PMRI, and VNDPG, thus altering the amounts I listed above.]

Jeff Nelson's suggestion that NAVS and VRG were in collusion with McDonald's is the most controversial part of the claims. Yet VegSource does not present any actual evidence of collusion. On a common sense basis, it seems extremely unlikely that VRG and NAVS could have exerted such an influence anyway; they were not even parties to the lawsuit and probably were not in a position to "dictate" what it would be. At best, they were in a position to negotiate and put in their opinions. And they surely can't have been tempted to support VegSource after they saw stories splattered across the internet accusing them of "sleeping with the enemy."

Some of the groups slated to get money certainly don't seem like "vegetarian groups": Tufts University? The Muslim Consumer Group? But in the middle of all this, there has been no single coherent definition of a "vegetarian group."

"Vegetarian Groups"?

There are different ways of approaching this question. The strict approach is taken by the International Vegetarian Union: a vegetarian group is one which both (a) works for vegetarianism and (b) is controlled by vegetarians. If it doesn't have both of these qualifications, it cannot be considered a "vegetarian group."  This is actually very close to the definition put forward by the American Vegan Society in their statement.  

Yet a number of groups which are usually accepted by the movement don't fit this strict definition. EarthSave is, in my opinion, an environmental group very friendly to vegetarianism, but which has declared in the past that it is not a vegetarian organization. [Actually, this is not clear.  It is probably now a vegetarian group.  It was founded by John Robbins and was explicitly a nonvegetarian group throughout the 1990's, but at some point was probably converted to an explicitly vegetarian group.  To find out when and how this happened, probably through an amendment to their documents, could not be easily done without the cooperation of the current EarthSave leadership, which is not favorably disposed to the present author.]  John McDougall, who has produced much excellent literature promoting veganism, said that he ate turkey once a year on Thanksgiving. It has been claimed that Dean Ornish, also, occasionally eats fish, notwithstanding his groundbreaking research on diet and heart disease. Some other groups are neither controlled by vegetarians, nor do they work for vegetarianism generally, but have specific projects which support vegetarianism. Loma Linda University has done some of the best research on vegetarianism in the world, but they do not work for explicitly vegetarian goals.

Which of these types of groups are truly "vegetarian groups" and thus worthy of getting settlement money? The settlement money goes to groups which fit all of these categories. It goes to some "traditional" vegetarian groups which are controlled by vegetarians (NAVS, VRG, AVS); it goes to some vegetarian-friendly groups not controlled by vegetarians (Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, possibly Dean Ornish), and it goes to some nonvegetarian groups which say they want to do vegetarian-friendly projects (Tufts, Loma Linda).  [Actually, the VNDPG is in a complicated situation: it is controlled by vegetarians, even though the group is a chapter of a nonvegetarian group, the ADAF, to which it must answer.]

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the court's overall task is to somehow benefit vegetarians, not to reward specific organizations. A vegetarian-friendly project done by competent and unbiased nonvegetarians might be of more value to vegetarians than pouring money into an inefficient but vegetarian-controlled group. Surely, the court should consider this, too.

To object to the settlement, there are two broad possible strategies one could follow. One way would be a "purist" strategy: a vegetarian group must be controlled by vegetarians and have primarily vegetarian goals -- not animal rights, environmental, health, or religious goals which happen to include vegetarianism. That would allow only the traditional vegetarian groups to get the money: VRG, NAVS, AVS, and possibly FARM, but not PETA, EarthSave, any of the academic institutions, McDougall, or Ornish. But VegSource does not support the strict definition of "vegetarian group"; they want to give money to EarthSave (an organization in which Jeff Nelson is active) as well as to Dean Ornish and probably John McDougall.

The second way, which is a bit more difficult but also arguable, would be to drop objections to the "purity" of the owners of the organization, and to focus on whether what they're doing will benefit vegetarians. Is Tufts really going to be objective in their research? How will this benefit vegetarians? However, this approach essentially drops the whole subject of whether they're a "vegetarian organization."  [Tufts proposed a scholarship fund for students studying vegetarianism, which the plaintiffs argued would in fact benefit vegetarians, since Tufts is committed to objective research.] VegSource does not take this path either; they admit that Loma Linda has done vegetarian research, but don't want them to get any money because Loma Linda is not a vegetarian organization. They object to the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group in the ADA [actually ADAF], but not to Dean Ornish.

Because VegSource and the other objectors do not consistently follow one path or the other, the result is a confused set of objections which didn't really help the judge. This confusion is one of the main reasons the objections to the settlement failed.

Editorial Conclusion

The discussion of this lawsuit has perhaps done as much damage to the vegetarian movement as McDonald's did by falsely advertising its french fries as vegetarian in the first place. If there is an appeal, the lawsuit may not be finally resolved for a long time. On the merits of the settlement, I believe that VegSource had some valid points to make in objecting to the settlement. However, the issue is considerably more complex than VegSource apparently thinks. Some appeals court may yet be able to give us an intelligent, well-thought-out definition of what a "vegetarian group" is, or some other good reasons for rejecting the Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products, but I don't see this in the VegSource brief.

Most critically though, the way in which this complex and confusing issue has been pursued was excessively political. For months we have seen the allegations of "sleeping with the enemy" directed towards VRG and NAVS. How much damage has been done to the movement through these careless charges? The import of these charges, that VRG and NAVS would betray the vegetarian cause to benefit themselves, are clearly unsubstantiated. Now, fortunately, these articles seem to have receded, and if you don't know where to look, you can't even find the articles on the VegSource site -- such is nature of the internet. (As of 5/23/2003, however, they have returned to the VegSource main page.)  [And by 2005, of course, they have disappeared once again.]  That's a good thing. But the damage has been done. We may be dealing with it for years.



Up ] McDonald's lawsuit over beef in the french fries ] [ McDonald's Lawsuit Fries Vegetarian Nerves ] McDonald's Lawsuit Timeline ] Proposed Settlement Allocation ] Settlement Agreement ] McDonald's Lawsuit Conclusion ] Corrections to Article ] Vegetarian Appellants ]