Wed, Feb 5, 2003
LOS ANGELES -- Vegetarians packed a Chicago courtroom Monday, January 27th, to protest the list of groups recommended to share in a $10 million settlement by McDonald's Corporation. McDonald's agreed to the settlement after being sued for misrepresenting its French fries and hash browns as "vegetarian."
The objectors who were present -- which included the leaders of various prominent vegetarian organizations who had flown in to urge that the list be rejected -- were not permitted by the judge to speak. Instead, the hearing focused on arguments between the plaintiff lawyers about their attorneys' fees.
The irony was clear to the vegetarian courtroom observers. Not permitted to speak for themselves, they knew many of the attorneys present in the courtroom, lawyers who were supposed to be speaking for vegetarians, had been fired by their vegetarian clients for not representing their interests.
After watching the various attorneys spend the better part of the afternoon haggling over fees, vegetarian Jim Laurie shook his head in disgust. "First they turned on vegetarians, then they turned on each other," said Laurie, who had driven 125 miles from Iroquois County, Illinois, hoping to voice his objections to the judge. "It was like watching a bunch of jackals fight over a carcass -- no disrespect meant to jackals."
The judge will rule on the proposed allocation of settlement funds, as well as on the allowed attorneys' fees, on February 25th. Legal experts say that multiple grounds exist for an appeal, should the judge approve the allocation as currently proposed. The mood in every corner of the vegetarian community virtually assures one. Six of the seven vegetarian plaintiffs who originally brought the suit -- and signed the settlement agreement with McDonald's -- also oppose the allocation proposal.
Vegetarians Express Solidarity
Every major leader and opinion-setter in the vegetarian world has joined together to oppose McDonald's current attempts to defraud the community. The list includes such luminaries as John Robbins, Alex Hershaft PhD, Gene and Lorri Bauston, John McDougall MD, Freya Dinshah, Michael Klaper MD, Matt Ball, Jack Norris, Joanne Stepaniak, T. Colin Campbell PhD, Mark Epstein, Stanley Sapon PhD, Joe Connelly, Neal Barnard MD, and Ingrid Newkirk.
In other words, all major vegetarian groups and leaders are opposed to the settlement as currently formulated, and this challenge has brought out the best in the vegetarian community. It's also brought out the worst; two lone vegetarian groups, the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) and the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) -- both of whom have a financial interest in the current McDonald's proposal -- took a role in supporting the attorneys working to get this corrupt proposal approved, as described below.
What's Wrong with the Settlement?
Vegetarians agreed to settle the lawsuit on the condition that McDonald's make a $6 million donation to "vegetarian organizations, dedicated to the values of vegetarianism organizations with geographic reach around the United States."
Rather than do so, however, lawyers falsely claiming to represent vegetarians joined hands with McDonald's to produce a list clearly intended to minimize benefit to the national vegetarian community.
First, they removed $550,000 of the $6 million intended for vegetarians, and assigned it to non-vegetarian Moslem groups instead. (Moslems were permitted to join the settlement after it was negotiated -- but rather than insisting McDonald's add more money to the settlement for Moslems, or rather than spreading the $550,000 for Moslems across all the classes, plaintiff attorneys and McDonald's were only too happy to deduct that sum only from the amount earmarked for vegetarian groups.)
Then McDonald's and the corrupt plaintiff attorneys decided to ignore the requirement for organizations to be "vegetarian charities dedicated to the values of vegetarianism" and included several ineligible groups to receive significant portions of the remaining $5.45 million, such as:
Tufts' Nutrition Department has shown repeated hostility toward vegetarianism such as publicly attacking the work of Michael Klaper MD and John McDougall MD. McDougall had to hire a libel lawyer in order to force Tufts to remove false statements from the Tufts Nutrition website about Dr. McDougall's work. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said Tufts has a clear "bias" when it comes to promoting the unhealthy, largely non-vegetarian foods of its funders. Jacobson reported Tufts Nutrition Department is funded by Kraft foods, a division of food-giant Philip Morris. CSPI also reported that Procter & Gamble, maker of both Crisco and the fake fat Olestra, recently financed a Tufts conference on fat-modified foods and gave the Tufts Department of Nutrition $50,000, in addition to the cost of the conference.
PETA recently conducted a six-month investigation into UNC's treatment of mice and rats and made some gruesome discoveries (click here for details). The National Institutes of Health's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare is investigating these violations at UNC. Dr. Zeisel plans to add the $250,000 vegetarian settlement cash to money he's gotten from the Egg Board in order to try to prove his hypothesis that the vegan diet is dangerous for pregnant women. McDonald's claims this is a valuable study to the vegetarian community, and the plaintiff lawyers agreed. The judge also heard testimony and received evidence that Dr. Zeisel is anything but sympathetic to the vegetarian lifestyle, or the values of vegetarianism, which Zeisel is quoted as calling an "extreme" diet in magazine articles.
The ADAF recently presented the its "Corporate Award for Excellence" to one of its largest contributors -- the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. (Click here to read release.) McDonald's scheme in the settlement allocation is to give $500,000 in "vegetarian organization" money to the ADAF which will in turn give it to an ADA subgroup, the Vegetarian Dietetic Practice Group. Settlement terms prohibit the money from going directly to the ADA because it's not a charity, but a 501(c)(4) lobbying/professional group. Hence, the ADA Vegetarian Practice Group is not actually eligible as a "vegetarian charity" under settlement terms -- but that doesn't stop McDonald's from trying to steer money there.
McDonald's knows it has clout with the ADA and ADAF, based on it's continuing contributions, and based on the way the ADA restricts its vegetarian members from advocating too vocally for vegetarianism (all vegetarian position papers must be edited and approved by people who do not embrace vegetarianism, and vegetarian dietitians are barred from attending certain events, such as the Dairy Board-funded "Calcium Summit" last year). McDonald's likely feels this money is well placed with an organization like ADAF whose stated policy is that "There are no bad foods," and that the ADA can do the least damage to their interests.
There are, of course, some wonderful vegetarian dietitians who belong to the ADA, and who work in what is a difficult environment, fighting against the ADA and trying to get reliable information about vegetarianism out to the public. But with all due respect to those people, the ADA is not a "vegetarian charity" that springs to the minds of any in the vegetarian community when it comes time to make their annual donations. Vegetarians who are members of the ADA may want to have extra money to work with; but that fact alone doesn't suddenly make the ADA a "vegetarian organization" or an eligible 501(c)(3), as required by the settlement. It's sad to see some good people ignore decency and fair play and make all manner of justifications when McDonald's dangles some money in their face -- money they know is not theirs properly to grab.
VV is a group which doesn't meet the "geographic reach" requirement for settlement consideration. However, VV has been repeatedly misrepresented by plaintiff lawyers as being a large national organization with multiple programs and projects stretching across the United States. If it were such, it would be eligible to receive money - but it is no more eligible than the Denver Vegetarian Club (if one exists) because no matter how good a group VV may be, it's a local organization reaching a very limited number of people.
LLU is certainly a veg-friendly place which has made supportive statements about the vegetarian diet. While approximately 50% of Seventh Day Adventists (the church which runs Loma Linda) are vegetarian, Loma Linda describes itself as dedicated to Jesus Christ, not vegetarianism. Is it a "vegetarian organization, dedicated to the values of vegetarianism," as required? Is it comparable to a charity like PCRM or FARM or Vegan Outreach or other non-profit organizations which are dedicated to vegetarianism? Clearly, McDonald's and the plaintiffs' attorneys are bending over backwards to give money to everyone other than groups they agreed the money would go to.
(It's important to note that while nearly all objectors felt the first four groups - Tufts, UNC, the ADA and VV - were wholly inappropriate to be considered "vegetarian charities with national reach" - some were more ambivalent when it came to Loma Linda University, given the history of some of LLU's bona fide interest in the vegetarian diet.)
The Good, the Bad and the Heroic
The whole situation around the McDonald's lawsuit has proven to be an opportunity for people to show what they're truly made of. The vast majority of vegetarians have condemned what is so obviously a corrupt process, and taken a stand against it. Some of the bona fide vegetarian organizations which were proposed by McDonald's to receive money have also been acutely aware of the deception McDonald's is attempting with this settlement. How each of these groups has reacted reveals volumes about them.
American Vegan Society
The American Vegan Society (AVS) is proposed to receive $500,000 under the McDonald's allocation. When Freya Dinshah of AVS learned that there were non-vegetarian and anti-vegetarian groups slated to also receive money, she didn't hesitate. She risked the displeasure of the plaintiff attorneys and McDonald's, and filed a strong and unequivocal objection. What was important to Freya in this situation was what has always been important to her and to her late husband, Jay -- serving the vegan and vegetarian community.
In her declaration, she defined what a vegetarian organization is, urged the court to use such a definition, and then pointed out a number of organizations in the McDonald's proposal which clearly do not meet that definition.
She ended her declaration petitioning the court to remove the non-vegetarian groups, and stating:
AVS places ethics over money; Freya Dinshah can't be bought off. The promise of $500,000 did not deter her from stating her beliefs and speaking the truth, and we salute her. To read Freya Dinshah's full declaration, click here.
North American Vegetarian Society
In May of 2002, the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) was invited by McDonald's to apply for consideration in the settlement. Click here to see the NAVS proposal sent to McDonald's. The NAVS proposal includes their plan to produce television commercials advocating vegetarianism, and other very noble-sounding endeavors which they have no experience doing. (It's no accident that McDonald's would rather fund fantasy programs for organizations with no track record for such programs, than fund an organization like PCRM, for example, which has shown it is able to effectively produce public service announcements, or to fund Dr. Klaper's ongoing and impressive vegan health study, which is something real and of tangible benefit to the community.)
Many of the experts who speak at the NAVS Summerfest had heard about and were interested in being considered for an allocation from the McDonald's settlement, but couldn't figure out how. Unlike NAVS, however -- whose proposal reads like a wish list of what they could do if they won the McDonald's lottery -- many of these NAVS speakers have actual ongoing programs, projects, studies and provide services. In other words, they have track records of serving the vegetarian community in important ways.
Many of these experts are shell-shocked that they've attended and spoken at Summerfest for years, and discussed with Brian Graff the programs and projects for which they are seeking funding - and that Graff didn't breathe a word about the McDonald's goldmine he was hoping to plunder.
For example, Professor T. Colin Campbell of Cornell has, for the past several years, spoken at Summerfest, often as a plenary speaker. He (and others) did so out of personal regard for Brian Graff, and to help insure Summerfest's success.
On several occasions at the NAVS conferences, he expressed his interests in raising funds to develop a highly professional program at Cornell, devoted to public discourse on nutrition issues, especially on the health value of plant-based nutrition. This interest sprung from his very popular course in "Vegetarian Nutrition" that he has taught during the past 6 years and on his 20-year diet and health project in China, known as the China Study. It has been Dr. Campbell's view that, because of the supporting evidence, it is time that vegetarian nutrition be given the public visibility and professional support and critique that it needs.
Thus, he recently became disappointed and disillusioned to learn that NAVS had been informed of the opportunity to get major funding yet had not informed him of the availability of such funds when they knew that he had such an interest.
"I feel like I've been betrayed by some of the things I've seen in this case," Dr. Campbell said recently. "I am about to hang up my boots and go back to the pastures from which I came. I simply don't understand what happened to the word 'integrity.'"
This is a heart-breaking statement from someone who is one of the most honorable, ethical, humble and nice people on the planet.
Dr. Campbell is just one of dozens of vegetarian leaders who have appeared at Summerfest. Not a single one of them received a call, email or other communication from Graff alerting them that there was a major source of funding he was contacted about which they might want to pursue.
If this didn't feel like enough of a betrayal to many who considered Graff to be their friend, Graff's subsequent refusals to object to the non-vegetarian groups slated to get millions in settlement money -- the money that was intended to go to true vegetarian organizations - is even more baffling.
Graff saw the McDonald's list, and he was fully aware it was corrupt. Copies were circulated in October of 2002. Unlike Freya Dinshah, who wanted to try to insure actual vegetarian groups -- rather than non-vegetarian ones -- got money, Graff didn't object to any of the groups. He didn't take a stand for the work of Dr. Campbell, Dr. Klaper, Dr. McDougall or Dr. Goldhamer over the work of the anti-vegetarian researcher at UNC. He didn't take a stand for FARM, PCRM, Vegan Outreach or EarthSave over the anti-vegetarian, food-industry-funded Tufts University getting this money.
After our article, "Sleeping with Enemy," went up on December 10, 2002, Graf was urged by NAVS supporters to file an objection to the non-vegetarian groups, to do what he could to insure they were eliminated from the list.
Two weeks ago, I was told by a NAVS member that he had learned NAVS had, in fact, filed an objection after my article went up. NAVS had sworn in their declaration, he said, that the universities in the proposal were "in no way, shape or form vegetarian organizations."
I was delighted to learn this, and asked to see the NAVS declaration. After several days of stalling, I finally received what they had filed - a statement from Brian Graff in support of NAVS receiving $1 million, and not an objection. In one out of the 12 pages of the Graff declaration, Graff stated that only vegetarian organizations should benefit under the settlement, that philosophically it would be nice if all the groups were vegetarian. Yet nowhere in his declaration did Graff state that any of the organizations on the list were NOT vegetarian. He raised NO OBJECTION to any of the groups on the list. It was no objection at all, but page upon page intended to make sure NAVS got their $1 million from McDonald's. Click here to see a copy of Graff's declaration.
After seeing this declaration two weeks ago, several NAVS supporters and even a NAVS board member repeatedly urged Graff to file a proper objection, rather than this muted, embarrassing "limp Charmin" non-objection, as one NAVS insider called it. They urged Graf to inform the judge the proposal contained inappropriate organizations and to state which groups in NAVS' opinion were not bona fide vegetarian organizations and should be eliminated.
But Graff refused. He refused to add specifics or to come out and actually say he disagreed with or found anything objectionable in the McDonald's proposal.
For the record, I had communication with Graff on this matter. This was done in a very public way with cc's to several friends of Graff and mine who are leaders in the vegetarian community. I wrote after I learned he had made an objection, asking to see it. I also appealed to Graff to be specific in any objections if he truly wanted to have an impact, while there was still time. Graff stated, as his email shows, that he would only re-submit the same generalized declaration and not one which was more specific, which might do more good. Several vegetarian leaders repeatedly pleaded with Brian in emails to reconsider and put in a declaration which was clear so that it might have some impact. He refused. To read the exchanges referenced, click here.
Telling me and others that NAVS had made an objection to the McDonald's proposal was, at best, a PR stunt. Even attorneys working with the court apparently knew it wasn't an objection. Click here to see a list of objections properly filed in this case. Freya Dinshah's and many others were counted as "objections"; but there is no objection from NAVS on the list. Thus, Graff's declaration was apparently counted not as an objection but as support for the proposal (as it was in support of the allocation for NAVS).
(It's important to note that Graff's declaration linked above also contains several distorted and out and out false statements, according to sources close to Graff.)
If the allocation goes through on February 25th, as NAVS has worked hard to insure, those speakers who are not so disgusted as to boycott Summerfest can at least look forward to receiving sizable speaking fees for appearing at the event, now that Graff will have plenty of funds to disburse. Graff should in good conscience use a portion of his windfall to compensate the many people who have given to him freely for decades.
Vegetarian Resource Group
As we previously mentioned in our "Sleeping with the Enemy" article, at the time the lawsuit was filed against McDonald's the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) published an editorial decrying the "screamers" who complain about restaurants that lie about ingredients. VRG intimated that people suing restaurants were doing more harm than good to vegetarianism. (click here to see the original VRG article)
In the ultimate act of hypocrisy, once the plaintiffs had done the hard work and forced McDonald's to settle, VRG turned around and submitted a proposal to grab over $1.5 million of settlement monies. Click here to see VRG's application submitted last spring at the invitation of McDonald's.
As a result of our December 10 article "Sleeping with the Enemy" -- which made public the secretive nature of the allocation process and exposed the corrupt list which McDonald's was trying to push through -- VRG was flooded with emails from their own members urging them to take a stand against the non-veg and anti-veg groups on the list.
VegSource was copied on several outraged emails to VRG, like this one sent in mid-December:
Rather than listen to its members and the rest of the outraged vegetarian community, and object to the inappropriate or ineligible groups, VRG did the opposite. VRG's Sue Havala Hobbs submitted a declaration to the court which actually endorsed McDonald's recommended list. Her declaration began with the following: "I support the RECOMMENDED ALLOCATION OF CY PRES FUNDS" (p.1 of Hobbs declaration -- click here to read the full declaration)
VRG's Hobbs further went on to say "I endorse the inclusion of . . . the University of North Carolina" - that is, VRG supported "vegetarian organization" money going to the vivisector interested in trying to prove the vegan diet is dangerous. (see p. 10 of Havala declaration). Of anti-vegetarian Tufts University, Havala said, "they may well be an appropriate recipient of funds." (p. 10)
Havala-Hobbs has since told others she didn't intend to endorse the non-vegetarian groups -- that it was somehow an accident that she did, and that she actually opposed monies going to the inappropriate groups. But this is utter nonsense. She was in court with me on January 13th, 2003, when the judge was hearing opposition to any part of the allocation proposal. She could easily have spoken up then, but chose not to.
To underscore her disingenuousness in the matter, Hobbs subsequently filed a declaration attempting to defend UNC and Tufts as appropriate recipients of "vegetarian organization" funds. Responding to my objections to these non-veg groups, VRG's Hobbs wrote that EarthSave, because it encourages people to "shift toward" a vegetarian diet, was not really a "vegetarian organization" either.
She wrote: "Nelson employs a double standard in his filings with the court. If the standards he applies to the vegetarian groups on the proposed settlement list are applied to his own organization [EarthSave], one could easily conclude that Earthsave is not a 'vegetarian organization' but rather than an environmental group encouraging dietary changes that may or may not be vegetarian." (See Second Declaration of Hobbs p. 7)
Thus, VRG's Hobbs took the final step in defending McDonald's list -- arguing to the court that EarthSave is no more a vegetarian organization than UNC or Tufts. Rather than using her personal knowledge and position to attempt to educate the court about what she knows are and aren't vegetarian organizations, VRG was only too happy to try to muddy the waters and confuse the judge.
It was highly deceitful, and particularly disgusting because Hobbs has long been a personal friend of people like EarthSave founder John Robbins, EarthSave Board Chair John Borders, and had herself once served on the Advisory Board of EarthSave. Now she saw her role in the furtherance of "justice" as trying to suggest to the court something she knew personally wasn't true.
The plaintiffs attorneys had a field day in their brief employing Hobbs' mendacious line of reasoning, using it to try to further confuse the judge about what groups are actually trying to work for vegetarianism, and which ones are not.
To further underscore how despicably VRG has behaved, Hobbs also stated that the $250,000 proposed by McDonald's to go for the anti-vegetarian study at UNC "in reality" is "a small amount of money relative to [UNC's] Department of Nutrition's budget." (see page 5, Hobbs second declaration)
So Hobbs says it's really no big deal for UNC to get this money, it's a "small amount" to them -- but it would be a big deal for any of many vegetarian organizations which struggle to continue their work, to get that amount of money. VRG was happy to defend settlement funds going to UNC over vegetarian organizations, knowing it would do the least amount of good for the vegetarian community. They provided the only declaration from anyone in the vegetarian community in favor of McDonald's sham proposal. They seem to have become the McDonald's Resource Group, rather than something resembling an organization looking to advance vegetarianism.
VRG and NAVS -- Servants of McDonald's?
To date, VRG has made two different responses to members who are offended and quit VRG in protest. First, VRG says that they "never opposed other vegetarian groups being included in the allocation." This is a meaningless statement. The problem is that VRG did not oppose the non-vegetarian groups being included. They didn't stand up, like Freya Dinshah of AVS did, for their comrades and the vegetarian community. And they went directly against the vegetarian community, submitting declarations supporting McDonald's attempts to get the non-veg groups through. If you're a vegetarian who wanted to see vegetarians benefit from this settlement rather than non-veg or anti-veg groups, VRG opposed you -- personally. They went against what you believe.
The other defense VRG has offered is that McDonald's controlled the selection process, and that VRG had no influence or ability to influence it. But this is wholly false. As VRG well knows, the settlement agreement gave veto power to both McDonald's and to the vegetarian plaintiffs' class. Groups like NAVS and VRG selected by McDonald's to receive money are de facto representatives of the vegetarian class. When they speak, their opinions carry more weight with the court than someone objecting from somewhere else. McDonald's falsely claimed all the objectors were just jealous and "greedy" because their own favorite organizations were left out. But when Freya Dinshah objected, they couldn't make that argument since her organization AVS is slated to receive $500,000. If NAVS and VRG had added their voice, it would have been significant and impossible for McDonald's to counter, or for the judge to discount.
NAVS' failure to object became consent for the list, whereas VRG actively campaigned to sell the corrupt list to the judge. Had NAVS and VRG taken a stand with the rest of the community against non-veg groups being included instead of veg ones, the impact would have been significant, and that could have greatly improved the chances of other actual vegetarian groups benefiting. But NAVS and VRG focused on insuring their own take, not on whether the settlement was just and included bona fide groups working to benefit the vegetarian community at large.
Debra Wasserman, who with her husband Charles Stahler operates VRG, claims that she is "hurt" by the vegsource.com articles which exposed the corrupt nature of the McDonald's allocation. But VRG's actions say more than any crocodile tears; Stahler mobilized Hobbs to contact Dr. Campbell in December after Stahler read Campbell's declaration. VRG's Hobbs then asked Campbell to reconsider his sworn testimony to change it to something more favorable to VRG.
VRG was focused on and cared about getting their money and removing any obstacles necessary to insure they got the money. The professional victim act comes when Wasserman has been called on her impropriety, and tries to feign innocence. It brings to mind the scene in the film Casablanca when police Captain Renault orders the sudden closure of Rick's Café, saying, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" A croupier appears and hands Renault a wad of bills, saying, "Your winnings, sir." Renault, taking cash: "Oh, thank you very much... Everybody out at once!"
What does it all mean?
The final chapter is yet to be written. We'll learn more on February 25th when the judge issues his ruling. But I like to believe that everything happens for a reason, and life is always giving us lessons and information.
I've learned again what I already knew -- that Freya Dinshah is an angel, someone who lives by the precepts of Ahimsa. She walks the talk. And I've learned that VRG and NAVS are run by the same sort of grasping, unethical people that run companies like McDonald's. The good news is you can save a lot of money you might otherwise donate to those two organizations, because they're soon to be sitting on top of a mountain of McDonald's moola; in exchange for the goodwill in the community these groups have sacrificed, they'll get their hush money.
Let's hope that the efforts of many who did stand up and object to this proposal will bear fruit, and the non-vegetarian recipients will be eliminated on February 25th. We'll be updating as we learn developments.
Jeff Nelson is President of VegSource Interactive, Inc.