by Jeff Nelson
Wed, Dec. 11, 2002
LOS ANGELES -- Many people know that McDonald's was successfully sued in a class action by a group of vegetarians. The vegetarian plaintiffs alleged the burger chain concealed the presence of beef product in what McDonald's had represented as being meat-free French fries. As part of the settlement, McDonald's made a public apology and agreed to pay $10 million to various groups representing the class, including $6 million to vegetarian organizations.
What most vegetarians don't know is that the settlement is more offensive than McDonald's original deception of its vegetarian customers -- because McDonald's is attempting to steer millions of dollars of the settlement monies to animal researchers and anti-vegetarian organizations by simply calling them vegetarian organizations.
In fact, the proposed allocation of settlement funds was so offensive that many vegetarian luminaries filed declarations and briefs objecting to it, including John Robbins, Michael Klaper MD, John McDougall MD, T. Colin Campbell PhD, Alex Hershaft PhD, Mark Epstein, Joanne Stepaniak, Jack Norris, Matt Ball, Gene and Lorri Bauston, Lige Weil, Stanley Sapon PhD, the Vegetarian Legal Action Network, and PCRM, to name a few.
Most vegetarians are also unaware that 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. Why would they do that? Because these few organizations -- with McDonald's blessing -- stand to receive millions of dollars from McDonald's themselves. They are upset that anyone is now rocking the boat and might endanger their hopes to become enriched.
To understand the enormity of the injustice, some background information is in order.
McDonald's Admits Fries Aren't Vegetarian
During the 1990's, McDonald's advised vegetarian customers that its French fries contained no meat. (Click here for an example of a letter from McDonald's making such assurances to a vegetarian customer.)
In 1997, shortly after Wendy's was sued for allegedly misrepresenting its veggie fajita as vegetarian, McDonald's reversed its stance and began advising the public that their fries actually contain beef product.
Representing 8 vegetarians who said they were forced to violate their ethical and religious beliefs, Seattle attorney Harish Bharti -- himself a lifelong vegetarian -- filed suit against McDonald's in 2001 for fraudulently advertising its French fries as vegetarian.
Once the lawsuit got underway and received publicity, several other plaintiffs and lawyers joined in and filed copycat lawsuits in other states. The suits were all combined together and given class action status.
Copycat Plaintiff Attorneys: McDonald's Plants?
Subsequently, all Texas copycat lawyers (Cadell & Chapman and all in Texas including copycat lawyer Corey Fein) were fired by all vegetarian plaintiffs when the clients discovered the lawyers were hiding information and settlement negotiations from them. Clients understandably feel this conduct is unethical when the lawyers are supposed to be working for them. So the Texas copycat lawyers simply removed these clients and brought three new vegetarian clients on board, and continued engaging in conduct supporting McDonald's.
Chicago plaintiff Cherie Travis terminated her copycat attorneys (Edelman, Combs & Latturner) when she discovered the lawyers were not acting in her best interest, and were settling with McDonald's against her wishes. Another Chicago plaintiff of Edelman, Combs & Latturner -- Penelope Baim Block -- was removed by the judge because her father-in-law was receiving referral fees from the copycat lawyers, which posed a potential conflict of interest. Thus, the Chicago copycat plaintiff's law firm has no clients in Chicago, but somehow still continues in the case -- continuing to assist McDonald's in a way their original client, Travis, opposes.
It is unheard of for attorneys to stay in a case after they have been fired by their clients. When a client fires an attorney, the attorney leaves the case and the plaintiff continues. But in this case, all copycat lawyers stayed on the case to support McDonald's and not the wishes of their original clients who fired them. (It's worth noting that as part of the settlement, McDonald's also agreed to pay $2.5 million in legal fees to be divided between plaintiff attorneys at the conclusion of the case -- Corey Fein and his firm have requested $700,000 in fees as their share.)
In a motion recently filed in the case, Cherie Travis' new lawyer alleges the copycat lawyers in Texas, including Corey Fein, and Travis' former Chicago lawyers, Edelman, are in direct violation of Rule 1.9 of Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, which states in relevant part that, A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter: (1) represent another person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person's interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client.
What this means then, for example, is that when copycat lawyer Corey Fein's initial clients did not want to make the many concessions to McDonald's which Mr. Fein wanted to make, and they fired him, Mr. Fein was prohibited by Rules of Professional Conduct from taking on other clients in the same case who materially disagree with those first clients who fired him. Yet this is exactly what Mr. Fein and other copycat lawyers supporting McDonald's have done, according to the documents just filed. This is a serious allegation; lawyers sometimes get disbarred for unethical conduct.
The other principal clients in this case are those of Seattle attorney Harish Bharti, who filed the original lawsuits in Seattle, Washington, and California. And Bharti's clients -- who comprise a majority of the clients in the case -- also strenuously objected to what they saw as the misconduct of the copycat attorneys in joining McDonald's to come up with a McDonald's allocation list.
Bharti expressed his frustration and that of his vegetarian clients to the court in a motion he filed this past summer. He asked the judge to remove the power to allocate the $10 million settlement fund from McDonald's and all plaintiffs' attorneys, and to instead appoint an impartial person or group to develop recommendations, and one which would not have a personal profit, political, or business motive to influence their allocation decisions.
In addition to making the selection process fair, Bharti also asked the court to make is transparent to the vegetarian plaintiff class, and not have it take place privately between McDonald's and a few plaintiff copycat attorneys who were fully supporting McDonald's.
It is interesting to note that a lawyer (who formerly worked for Edelman, Combs & Latturner in Chicago) informed the court during the approval hearing that copycat lawyers threatened Bharti for taking a tough stand against McDonald's. The irony, of course, was that the lawsuit exists because of Bharti and his clients, but the copycat attorneys had joined McDonald's to exclude and undermine the wishes and intent of the original parties who brought the suit.
Not surprisingly, the copycat attorneys and McDonald's vigorously opposed Bharti's motion to allow an impartial entity to become involved in the allocation process, and rejected Bharti's suggestion of making the process more visible to the vegetarian community. They continued in private to propose monies go only to groups McDonald's favored, and to in essence rig the system against the greater vegetarian class of plaintiffs. The proposal made by McDonald's and the copycat lawyers even includes $700,000 in settlement money to go to a non-profit group to which, they admitted, the mothers of two copycat lawyers belong and which runs the school to which another copycat attorney's son attends. (See court documents and declarations below for details.)
The fact is that the copycat attorneys and McDonald's are working together and filing joint briefs. They have joined together against the lawyer who brought the suit in the first place, reportedly threatening him if he doesn't cooperate with McDonald's, siding with McDonald's against vegetarian plaintiffs' desires. This suggests to me that fraud is being attempted on the court. Fortunately, the judge has agreed to keep his control and oversight over the disbursement of the $10 million fund in his order of October 30, 2002.
Most of the above information is verifiable from public court records.
Beef In the Settlement Proposal?
McDonald's and the copycat attorneys recently released their list of proposed allocation. Of the $6 million allocated for vegetarian organizations, this is what they are hoping the court will approve:
1. Vegetarian Resource Group
2. American Dietetic Association Foundation
3. Preventive Medicine Research Institute
4. North American Vegetarian Society
5. Vegetarian Vision, Inc.
6. The American Vegan Society
7. Loma Linda University
8. Tufts University
9. UNC, Chapel Hill, Dept of Nutrition
10. Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products
12. Sound Vision Foundation $1,400,000
Many vegetarian leaders were quite upset and concerned about this.
People at major non-profit vegetarian organizations like FARM, PCRM, PETA, EarthSave, Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary, YES!, the National Health Association [NHA] (formerly the American Natural Hygiene Society), and several other prominent and highly respected vegetarian groups had been baffled about how to be considered to receive some of the settlement monies -- or weren't even aware they were eligible to apply. Those who did attempt to apply and receive consideration were rebuffed or refused.
The terms of the settlement itself had called for public announcements to be made about how vegetarian groups could go about applying to be considered. Specifically, the settlement called for announcements to be placed in Vegetarian Times magazine and in the magazine of the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS), called Vegetarian Voice. (For a copy of the settlement, click here and do a search on Vegetarian Times to confirm the preceding.)
When recently asked whether he thought it was fair that many large vegetarian organizations were being left out of the McDonald's settlement while NAVS was to receive $1 million, NAVS director Brian Graff responded that his understanding was that the reason so few other organizations were getting settlement money was because very few had applied to receive any.
When asked whether he had published the announcement in the NAVS newsletter (Vegetarian Voice) as required under the settlement terms, Graff conceded he had not run the announcement, as he had had deadline problems.
Graff did not run the required announcement informing other organizations how to apply, nor did he contact the many other vegetarian organizations he knows well to let them know how to apply. Instead, he applied himself, requesting $1 million for his own organization.
But there is more. Graff was opposed to suing McDonald's at the time it was filed (see the declarations below for backup of this and more facts in this article). Now that others have brought the litigation to a successful conclusion, Graff is more than happy to accept an allocation in spite of this, and in spite of having concealed important information from other vegetarian groups.
What's Wrong with McDonald's Proposal
At the end of this article I am attaching my declaration, which is a public document filed with the court in Chicago on December 3, 2002. It is 39 pages long and also has numerous exhibits attached detailing what has occurred, including what is touched on in this article. In the meantime, here is a brief list of some of the information contained in this and other declarations recently filed:
1. Vegetarian Resource Group $1,400,000
I don't object to VRG getting some settlement money. But I do object to their getting $1.4 million when so many worthy groups are ignored. I also think there is something unethical about VRG trying to get the lion's share of the settlement money when it advocated against suing McDonald's when the suit was filed.
VRG published an editorial in its May 2001 magazine at the time the lawsuit was filed stating it opposed suing chains like McDonald's. It also has a close relationship with McDonald's, promoting their products, and VRG has the same public stance on natural flavors for which McDonald's was sued -- namely, erring on the side of declaring products vegetarian when they know that natural flavors might mean they contain animal products (see declaration exhibits for copy of VRG magazine explaining this stance).
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. Additionally, VRG aided McDonald's in 1997 after McDonald's informed them the fries had beef product in them, and VRG did not inform the public for several months. They only informed the public several months later, when McDonald's was forced to publicly admit it in reaction to another fast food chain being sued (see my declaration and the declaration of Pat Fish, and exhibits from VRG Magazine). Despite denouncing this lawsuit and showing the same lack of concern about ingredients as McDonald's, VRG has now sought to obtain $1.4 million or nearly 25% of the entire settlement.
How can VRG justify to themselves -- and everyone else -- the ethics of convenience that allow them to publicly oppose and actively discourage this lawsuit and then to hypocritically attempt to reap the lion's share of the benefits?
2. American Dietetic Association Foundation $500,000
This is another group McDonald's wishes to give money to, under the auspices of the ADA's vegetarian work group. But the ADA is a group McDonald's already gives money to, and it's hardly a vegetarian organization. It is an organization McDonald's would rightfully perceive as being friendly to it. In addition to large sums the ADA already gets from McDonald's, the fast food chain provides nutritional information brochures to the ADA. The ADA and ADAF are heavily dependent on the food industry to provide financial support. The ADA's overall position is that there are no bad foods. This flies in the face of what this lawsuit about, which is that there are bad foods.
I am also informed by vegetarian nutritionists associated with the ADA that there is increasing concern about the independence of the vegetarian work group at the ADA. The ADA is not a group that the people who were wronged by and sued McDonald's want their settlement money going to.
3. Preventive Medicine Research Institute $500,000
This is Dr. Dean Ornish's non-profit organization. Ornish has proposed to use the money to fund a randomized study of some research he did recently at UCSF. Ornish took people who are waiting for heart transplants and put them on his regime of a low-fat vegetarian diet, exercise and stress management, in order to try to improve their hearts while waiting for a transplant. The result was that all 7 patients improved so much they didn't need heart transplants any more! It was an amazing result. Ornish will repeat this study if his non-profit receives the award, and he also plans a study of the Atkins diet versus a low-fat vegetarian diet. These are worthy projects which show much promise in benefitting the vegetarian community. Dr. Ornish is distinguished by being one of the very few truly worthy groups on the McDonald's proposal to receive settlement monies.
4. North American Vegetarian Society $1,000,000
As already noted, Brian Graff of NAVS kept to himself the information about how to apply for monies. This is more than unethical; it dishonestly takes advantage of privileged -- insider --information . He had a responsibility to the class of plaintiffs to share this information, but his failure to disseminate it widely made it very difficult, if not impossible, for many vegetarian organizations to apply. McDonald's now proposes to reward this behavior by giving him $1 million.
Like VRG, Graff opposed the filing of the lawsuit, and like VRG he now finds it appropriate to accept a huge amount of the settlement money from the suit. NAVS is an organization with a very small membership that represents a minuscule proportion of the nation's vegetarians. In addition to a magazine of limited circulation that is published irregularly, its principal effort is focused on holding a single summer vegetarian conference that attracts the five or six hundred visitors who can afford to come. But the interests of the class of 16 million vegetarians are hardly well-served by a gift of this magnitude to NAVS while a host of highly effective organizations who offer broad programs of vegetarian education and support to a wide audience are denied the opportunity to apply for funds.
Graff is now actively working with Corey Fein and the other copycat lawyers. In court documents, Fein relates having in-depth conversations with Graff, and Graff was recently informed by Fein of the declarations filed by many in the vegetarian community against this settlement. Graff has contacted several of the leading vegetarian advocates who are protesting to express his displeasure that his $1 million may be threatened by their objections. It is most unfortunate that NAVS and VRG are working with the copycat lawyers and are siding with McDonald's against the people who brought this lawsuit and against the vegetarian community.
5. Vegetarian Vision, Inc. $250,000
This is a highly parochial, New York City vegetarian group with limited scope and an extremely small number of members. Yet McDonald's would like to give them a quarter million dollars. Vegetarian Vision is also a Hindu group. They should be supported from the separate allocation of $2 million earmarked for Hindu groups, not from the $6 million earmarked for vegetarian groups.
6. The American Vegan Society $500,000
AVS is a wonderful organization run by my friend, Freya Dinshah. AVS absolutely should receive some settlement money, just as NAVS and VRG should receive some money. To allot a half million dollars to an organization that serves a very small number of people is not fair to the interests of the millions of people who comprise the class.
7. Loma Linda University $250,000
While Loma Linda has done vegetarian research, it is not a vegetarian organization with vegetarian goals. Settlement monies are explicitly earmarked to go to vegetarian organizations. Loma Linda is asking, according to the declaration of copycat lawyer Corey Fein, for a quarter million dollars to expand circulation of the Vegetarian Nutrition and Health newsletter, and to develop a website. Just how Loma Linda plans to expand circulation of a newsletter using $250,000 is not stated. But this lawsuit was not filed so that some university could reap a windfall for a newsletter which they already charge people to subscribe to. Loma Linda may be a very good university, but this is clearly an improper use of settlement funds for a lawsuit which is concerned with a company lying about ingredients.
8. Tufts University $800,000
Tufts is a school whose nutrition department has publicly attacked Michael Klaper MD and John McDougall MD, to the point where Dr. McDougall had to hire a lawyer and force Tufts Nutrition Department to retract allegedly defamatory statements they made about his work arresting and reversing disease through diet. But McDonald's and the copycat attorneys would now have us believe that Tufts is a vegetarian organization which should get $800,000 of the settlement money earmarked for vegetarian organizations. Tufts school of nutrition is funded by major food companies such as Kraft Foods (and even carries ads for Olestra on their Tufts Nutrition website). It is in no way, shape or form a vegetarian organization. As the declarations of many notable vegetarian medical doctors and experts attest, it is an anti-vegetarian enterprise which promotes meat, dairy and processed foods.
9. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Dept of Nutrition $250,000
McDonald's and the copycat attorneys are proposing Dr. Stephen Zeisel of UNC receive $250,000 to perform research on pregnant vegan women. Zeisel has been quoted in multiple publications stating he believes that vegan women should go off the vegan diet when pregnant, and eat eggs, drink milk and perhaps eat beef liver. Those are foods rich in choline, and Zeisel knows from his lab experiments that when you remove choline from the diet of rats, the rats produce babies with birth defects. (Some of Zeisel's research has been funded by the Egg Board.) Zeisel is hostile to vegetarianism and yet, according to McDonald's and the copycat lawyers, Zeisel (who isn't a vegetarian) is running a vegetarian organization -- Chapel Hill Department of Nutrition. McDonald's and the copycat attorneys want to convince the court that Zeisel is an excellent choice to represent the interests of the people who unknowingly ate beef in McDonald's French fries. Meanwhile, groups like FARM, EarthSave, PCRM, Vegan Outreach, Yes!, Dr. Klaper's vegan study non-profit organization -- and many others -- are rejected by McDonald's to represent the interests of vegetarians.
10. Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products $50,000
11. IFANCA $150,000
12. Sound Vision Foundation $350,000
These last three groups are being represented as vegetarian groups by McDonald's and the copycat lawyers. These are all groups which teach their members about halal -- humane slaughter of animals before eating them. Clearly, these are not vegetarian organizations by any definition. Yet McDonald's is stretching the definition of vegetarian organizations to include groups that encourage the eating of animal products.
Stand for What's Right, or Be a Guilty Bystander?
In what appears to be an unholy alliance, NAVS and VRG have joined hands with the copycat attorneys. They are in active communication and working with them to help get this McDonald's proposal through, as publicly available court papers reveal. Sadly absent are the declarations by NAVS and VRG objecting to the sham and fraud of giving all this settlement money intended for vegetarian organizations to vivisectors, non-vegetarian groups and groups hostile to vegetarianism. Instead, they have now mounted a telephone campaign, calling a number of celebrated vegetarian experts who have filed declarations opposing the settlement. They are lobbying those experts to change their position and support the allocation McDonald's and the copycat attorneys have put forth.
Every vegetarian leader I have spoken to is appalled by seeing the settlement turned into a sham where the setlement money is being so grossly misdirected.
To clarify one point, VegSource is not a non-profit organization so there is no way we can receive or benefit from the settlement monies. While I am a member of a half dozen vegetarian organizations and serve on the boards of more than one, and while it would be great to see those organizations share in the settlement, this is not about those or any specific organizations getting money. This is totally about fairness, about doing what's right, about getting a corrupt process thrown out and starting over with a fair and transparent process.
Jeff Nelson is President of VegSource Interactive.