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Posted on 06/03/02 . By Ameet Sachde . Chicago Tribune . USA
McDonalds nears settling vegetarians' lawsuit
McDonald's Corp. is close to settling lawsuits filed by several vegetarians last year who accused the burger chain of deliberately concealing the use of beef extract in its French fries.
A confidential draft of the proposed settlement offer calls for McDonald's to pay $10 million to charities that support vegetarianism, issue a public apology and form an advisory board to counsel the company on vegetarian dietary issues. Another $2.4 million would go to plaintiffs' attorneys.
The settlement would end an embarrassing episode for McDonald's over one of its most popular menu items, the skinny French fry. The agreement would cover lawsuits in five states, including Illinois, that were filed on behalf of any vegetarian who ate McDonald's fries after 1990 in the belief that they contained no meat. That was the year the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company began saying its fries were cooked in "100 percent vegetable oil" instead of a combination of beef tallow and vegetable shortening.
The change came to appease cholesterol- conscious fast-food diners. Based on the company's marketing of the switch, the plaintiffs contend they assumed that the fries were a vegetarian product, not knowing that McDonald's continued to add a small amount of beef tallow to its fries for flavoring. McDonald's says it never made any claims about the vegetarianism of its fries, but it also did not fully disclose the use of the beef extract. In its nutrition brochures, the company described the ingredient as "natural flavor." The plaintiffs argue that some of the chain's restaurant employees were not even aware of the beef flavoring and told them the fries were vegetarian.
Three vegetarians in Seattle, including two Hindus who don't eat meat for religious reasons, were the first to file a complaint last May. Suits in California, Illinois, Texas and New Jersey followed. Under the proposed agreement, the 12 named plaintiffs in the five pending cases would each receive $4,000. But not all the plaintiffs are pleased with the offer. A formal settlement has yet to be filed with the court. "Given how long the window of deception was, $10 million is a pittance," said Cherie Travis, of Downers Grove, Ill., who filed a suit in her state. "McDonald's made a lot of money telling people that the fries were vegetarian."
Travis was so unhappy she fired her attorney, Jason Shanfield of the Chicago firm Edelman, Combs & Latturner Llc, last month. Three plaintiffs in Texas also dismissed their attorney last month. Shanfield declined to comment. McDonald's would not discuss details of the deal Wednesday. The company "has been working in good faith to resolve this matter," spokesman Walt Riker said. "It was purely unintentional, and we have been working to address this issue in a positive way." According to the draft, McDonald's does not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the agreement.
The terms call for McDonald's to donate $6 million to vegetarian organizations, $2 million to Hindu or Sikh groups, $1 million to promote children's hunger relief and another $1 million to support kosher dietary practices. McDonald's also will publish an apology in at least six specialized publications, including Veggie Life, Hinduism Today and India Tribune.
Travis said that the apology is not a big concession from McDonald's because the company posted an apology on its Web site last May for causing culinary confusion over the last decade. She also is not happy with the advisory board because, she said, "There's nothing that bind McDonald's to any of its recommendations." ---
© 2002, Chicago Tribune