Latest beef over fries who gets money
Seattle Times staff reporter
When fast-food giant McDonald's announced in May that it would pay out $12.5 million to settle a class-action suit over its deceptive use of beef flavoring in its French fries, it was hailed by vegetarians and religious groups with strict dietary laws about eating meat.
McDonald's apologized for telling customers for a decade that its fries were cooked in 100 percent vegetable oil, when all the while its raw potatoes were first seasoned with beef extract.
But getting McDonald's to agree to the multimillion-dollar payout may have been the easy part.
Animal-rights activists say they're being excluded from the big payout in favor of vegetarian groups less outspoken in their criticism of McDonald's. Muslims are objecting, saying they should have been included along with the Hindus, Sikhs and Jews originally named in the settlement. The lead attorney in the case, Seattle's Harish Bharti, has been accused by lawyers representing other vegetarians around the country of monopolizing the limelight, while he accuses them of caring more about their fees than the cause of vegetarianism.
"This whole settlement is a sham," said Bharti, who said the four other attorneys representing vegetarians and Hindus in the class-action lawsuit are "joining hands with McDonald's" to craft a settlement that excludes deserving organizations.
"In a case that's about deceiving consumers, the lawyers should not be engaging in the same deceptive practices," said Bharti, a Hindu and vegetarian.
More than 100 organizations, varying from a Pennsylvania cow sanctuary to a yoga meditation center have applied for part of the settlement. Most won't get any money, say attorneys now at odds with Bharti, because the organizations are not mainstream vegetarian groups.
"We wanted groups that would have the most effect on the most people," said James Latturner, a Chicago attorney representing vegetarians in Illinois. "Because Mr. Bharti finds himself alone on this, he is accusing all the other lawyers of being biased and unethical."
But the groups likely to receive money aren't exactly household names, according to a preliminary settlement list filed with the court last week.
One, the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) lists two full-time employees and an annual income of $292,480, according to federal financial records.
Bruce Friedrich, Director of Vegan Outreach for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal-rights group that has waged very public battles with McDonald's over the treatment of farm animals, said NAVS is "an excellent organization."
But it isn't one that makes a connection between eating meat and animal suffering, he said.
PETA requested money from the settlement to distribute its Vegetarian Starter Kit and was turned down, Friedrich said.
Another organization that doesn't show up on the tentative settlement list is Vegan Outreach, which publishes "Why Vegan?" a pamphlet Friedrich calls "the single most popular piece of vegetarian literature."
With more than 3 million copies distributed over the past decade, many of them on college campuses, Friedrich said "Why Vegan?" raises questions about the treatment of farm animals and environmental problems caused by agribusiness.
Like NAVS, Vegan Outreach is a shoestring operation with just two employees. One of them, Matthew Ball, said his group applied for settlement money. But he never expected a company built on Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets to pay for copies of a pamphlet which makes a moral case against eating meat, he said.
"If I were McDonald's, I'd give the money to the most benign, least effective organizations out there," he said.
Chicago attorney Latturner said animal-rights groups were eliminated early in the settlement negotiations because they represent "a small subset of the groups which advance vegetarianism." And he said that McDonald's attorneys, who are engaged in almost weekly settlement negotiations with the plaintiffs' attorneys, "haven't blackballed any group."
In July, Bharti asked the Chicago judge overseeing the settlement negotiations to remove the lawyers from decisions about which groups will receive money. Bharti charged that the plaintiffs' attorneys were representing McDonald's interests more than those of their own clients. Under the preliminary settlement agreement, the attorneys will divide $2.5 million no matter who receives the other $10 million.
The judge is scheduled to rule Aug. 22 on Bharti's motion and the final distribution of money.
Bharti filed suit
Bharti sued McDonald's in May 2001, on behalf of U.S. vegetarians, saying the fast-food giant deliberately misled customers who don't eat meat products by using beef tallow in its fries and hash browns long after making a widely publicized 1990 pledge to cook them in vegetable oil. McDonald's admitted using beef extract, not beef tallow.
To settle the flap, McDonald's agreed to pay $10 million to Hindu, vegetarian, kosher and children's charities and publicly apologize for misleading consumers. In addition, McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Ill., agreed to disclose the ingredients in its menu items.
Until the McDonald's litigation vaulted him to national prominence, Bharti was a relatively obscure solo practitioner with an office in Ballard. In interviews, he speaks passionately and insistently about the pursuit of justice as a spiritual calling. But when he starts citing in legal briefs how he trained with Indian swamis and adheres to the teachings of Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, the other lawyers in the case start to sigh.
An angry lawyer
One of them, Los Angeles attorney Kevin Roddy, was already peeved at Bharti for making the rounds of talk shows and Sunday morning news programs after the $12.5 million settlement was announced and failing to mention that Roddy had negotiated the deal. "He's the only ethical attorney in the room?" asked Roddy. "That is not a man of God."
As for Bharti's accusation that plaintiffs' attorneys are working hand in hand with McDonald's, Roddy said the settlement agreement directs the two sides to work together to come up with a final proposal for the court.
"That's how cases are settled," he said.
About 2,000 objections to the settlement have been filed with the court, not an unusual number, say attorneys, in a case with 16 million potential plaintiffs and $10 million to be distributed.
Meanwhile Muslims have launched an e-mail campaign objecting to their exclusion from the settlement. Muslims have strict dietary laws.
Abdul Malik Mujahid, head of SoundVision, which sells Islamic educational materials on the Internet, said the 6 million to 8 million Muslims in North America "must be recognized as an offended party. Everyone has a right to know what they're eating."
Lynn Thompson can be reached at 206-464-2922 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: This article, originally published August 4, said Seattle attorney Harish Bharti had characterized as a sham a settlement calling for McDonalds to distribute $10 million to charities and to apologize for misleading customers about beef extracts in its French fries. Bharti supports the settlement. What he characterized as a sham is the process by which McDonalds and other plaintiffss attorneys are distributing the settlement funds.