VegSource Interactive, Inc. | Editorial

McDonald's Case: Final Chapter?

by Jeff Nelson
President, VegSource Interactive, Inc.

May 22, 2003 -- Cook County judge Richard Siebel issued a final ruling Monday by allowing 24 groups to share in a $10 million settlement by McDonald's Corp. Lawsuits in various states alleged McDonald's had deliberately misled vegetarians about the fact that it uses animal fat in its French fries.

As part of the settlement McDonald's issued an apology and promised to donate $6 million to "vegetarian organizations" that are "dedicat[ed]" to the "values" of
"vegetarianism." Instead, working in league with plaintiff attorneys who were supposed to represent vegetarians, McDonald's made recommendations that much of the settlement money should go to non-vegetarian groups, or to groups which are in fact hostile to vegetarianism.

In documents filed last week in the case, McDonald's and plaintiff attorneys argued to the court that many vegetarians "eat fish and fowl." They argued that for the purpose of giving away settlement money, a "vegetarian organization" could be an organization that promotes meat and has a longstanding financial relationship with McDonald's, so long as that organization promised to use settlement money to "benefit vegetarians."

$3 million of additional settlement monies were earmarked for Hindu and Kosher organizations. McDonald's did not attempt to redefine what constitutes a Hindu or a Kosher organization, however. According to sources familiar with the case, McDonald's lead attorney said the burger company insisted that full $3 million of settlement money must go only to bona fide Hindu and Kosher groups, run by Hindus and Jews, and that Hindus and Jews in the US would "go berserk" if the money were given to non-Hindu or non-Jewish groups. Vegetarians were the only group McDonald's discriminated against.

On Monday the court granted McDonald's duplicitous request. In effect, McDonald's duped vegetarians twice - once when McDonald's lied about including animal products in their fries, and a second time when they promised to donate $6 million to vegetarian groups, and then went on to convince the judge that black is white, and anti-vegetarian organizations are, in fact, vegetarian groups.

"It's shameful," said one source close to the case. "It's as if they convinced the judge that you're kosher even if you eat bacon."

McDonald's New Best Friend -- VRG

The worst part in all this may be that the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), recipient of $1.4 million of McDonald's funds -- the largest single amount in the $10 million settlement -- aided and abetted McDonald's in ripping off the vegetarian community. VRG submitted multiple declarations through their paid employee, Suzanne Havala-Hobbs, endorsing money going to non-vegetarian groups rather than actual vegetarian ones. (See articles linked below for copies of Havala's declarations.)

For years VRG has been known as being probably the only vegetarian organization in the US which promotes McDonald's products on their website and in their newsletter. Ironically, in this lawsuit brought by vegetarians against McDonald's, VRG originally sided with McDonald's, disparaging the suit and the vegetarians who brought it in a dismissive editorial. (See links at bottom to previous articles showing VRG's editorial.) In light of their criticism of the lawsuit, VRG should never have sought to enrich itself with the settlement, much less the lion's share -- $1.4 million -- which they pursued aggressively through the courts once McDonald's cried uncle.

After several vegetarian icons -- people like John Robbins, John McDougall, Michael Klaper, Colin Campbell, Alex Hershaft, Gene & Lorri Bauston, Matt Ball, Jack Norris and many others -- filed objections to the non-vegetarian groups receiving money rather than vegetarian groups as agreed to in the settlement, VRG helped McDonald's through its court filings. VRG's Suzanne Havala-Hobbs attempted to counter filings by leading vegetarians, declaring her support to the judge for all of the groups McDonald's proposed. VRG's Havala-Hobbs even championed money going to an animal experimenter at the University of North Carolina, and to vegetarian-hostile Tufts University, which sells meat in its cafeterias -- as opposed to donating money to actual vegetarian nonprofit groups like the National Health Association (formerly the Natural Hygiene Assoc.), FARM, Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary, EarthSave or Dr. Michael Klaper's Vegan Health study, as but a few examples. VRG's Havala-Hobbs traveled to Chicago at least twice to keep up on the proceedings. During one court appearance, she was given an opportunity by Judge Siebel to object to any of the groups in the proposal which might not be vegetarian groups. Havala declined to do so.

NAVS - Don't Rock the McDonald's Boat

Another group which failed to stand with the vegetarian community is the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS). After learning of the objections filed in early December against the non-vegetarian groups in the McDonald's proposal, NAVS decided to file its own document. Unfortunately, in what appeared to be their attempt not to endanger their own proposed $1 million take from the settlement, NAVS' filing didn't name *any* proposed group which they considered inappropriate. Instead, NAVS spent page after page attempting to solidify its own grasp on a proposed $1 million McDonald's allocation. Brian Graff, NAVS First Vice-President, who authored the declaration submitted to the court by NAVS, even praised a mendacious plaintiff attorney he was working with so cozily -- the same one scheming with McDonald's to give as much settlement money as possible to non-vegetarian groups.

Upon seeing the NAVS' "objection," several leading NAVS members, including NAVS board members, urged Graff to take a strong and specific stand against the non-vegetarian groups getting money. Graff categorically refused. He instead chose to ignore repeated emails and telephone calls, including those from a longtime NAVS friend and supporter, who excoriated Graff at the time in a widely cc'ed email for failing to even acknowledge attempts to discuss the matter with him. (Graff only responded later, via his wife, NAVS treasurer Sharon Graff, once the timetable for filing objections to McDonald's shenanigans had passed.)

NAVS, which puts on an annual vegetarian Summerfest in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, appears to have gone so far as to retaliate against at least one of the individuals who objected to the non-vegetarian groups McDonald's was proposing. While some venerated vegetarian experts have in the past repeatedly been invited by Graff to appear at Summerfest, this year NAVS chose not to invite at least one who had filed objections to non-vegetarian groups receiving McDonald's money. NAVS' message would seem to be along the lines of one delivered to the Dixie Chicks -- object to McDonald's deceptive conduct, and you may find yourself on our blacklist.

In responding to complaints about their poor conduct in this matter, NAVS has said that no one is really upset with them, and that no Summerfest speakers have turned down their speaking invitations over this issue. Of course, by not inviting, NAVS can't be turned down.

The only vegetarian organization on the McDonald's recipient list which acted with honor and stood up firmly for justice and for their friends in the vegetarian community -- was the American Vegan Society (AVS). Freya Dinshah of AVS lobbied the court forcefully and specifically to reject non-vegetarian groups from the allocation, and suggested the court consider one or more of the many worthy bona fide vegetarian groups instead, in keeping with the settlement agreement. (See articles linked below.)

Next steps?

Many in the vegetarian community are outraged that McDonald's (in league with plaintiff lawyers, who seem to be more eager to collect huge legal fees than properly represent their clients) has succeeded in duping the judge into believing non-veg groups are veg ones.

Multiple definitions of "vegetarian organization" were submitted for the judge to consider during the course of briefings in the case. In the end, Judge Siebel ostensibly adopted McDonald's definition, opting to include organizations which promote and sell meat as "vegetarian organizations, dedicated to the values of vegetarianism." It seems likely that vegetarians concerned about justice will appeal this verdict, and at a minimum make a final effort to stop McDonald's from once again defrauding the vegetarian community.

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