Statement from Dr. Campbell on McDonald's Litigation
June 10, 2004 -- In February of 2004, I appeared as a guest lecturer on a cruise ship nutrition program conducted by Hans Diehl’s CHIP (Coronary Health Improvement Program). While there, a program attendee related some rather unflattering rumors, recriminations and misrepresentations she had heard about me regarding my participation in objecting to the McDonald’s lawsuit settlement. After learning more about the source of these false accusations, I decided to issue this public statement to detail my involvement in the matter and clear up any questions.
When I personally learned of the proposed McDonald’s settlement allocation from Jeff Nelson of VegSource.com in late Fall 2002, I was surprised and disappointed by it. It was clear to me that this was a highly questionable proposal (no, Jeff Nelson did not put these thoughts into my head).
The proposed distribution of funds and the process by which this distribution was determined was neither fair to the plaintiff class it was supposed to benefit, nor consistent with the express objectives of the settlement itself. While the $6 million allocation was to go to “vegetarian organizations” to promote “vegetarian values,” $550,000 off the top was proposed to go to Moslem groups in order to promote the Halal preparation of meat-based foods. Two vegetarian organizations – the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) and the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) – and three professional institutions (Tufts University, the University of North Carolina and the American Dietetic Association/Vegetarian Practice Group) were slated to receive about 75% of the available funds. In contrast, many other groups who had been contributing mightily during the past 2-3 decades to the public’s awareness of the concepts and practices of vegetarianism were missing, including the organization who has the longest history in this field and whose inquiry of applying for funding was re-buffed.
(While the settlement terms permitted McDonald’s to veto any vegetarian groups it did not want in the settlement, the settlement terms gave the same power to the vegetarian class, through their lawyers, to veto any groups which we would find inappropriate – such as those which are hostile to vegetarianism or looking to do anti-vegetarian research with the money. However, the lawyers who were supposed to represent our interests either had little or no understanding of the vegetarian world, or simply cared more about McDonald’s interests. In either case, they did not fulfill their obligation to protect the interests of the vegetarian class.)
I was and remain convinced that the proposal as suggested by McDonald’s would not have benefited the vegetarian plaintiffs class as was mandated by law, and would not have led to the further enlightenment of the public on the evidence supporting the consumption of a plant-based diet. Indeed, based on my own personal experiences and knowledge with the proposed groups, there was a serious likelihood that the proposal as fashioned by McDonald’s would seriously denigrate the concept.
Because of these reservations and my desire to share my perspectives on the issue, I agreed to appear in person before the judge in Chicago to make known my views and personal experiences with proposed recipient organizations such as Tufts and UNC.
The main thrust of my testimony was that the proposal did not meet the objectives set forth by the court for a settlement. I proposed in my testimony and in a written declaration that, to insure justice, a third-party review be undertaken of proposals submitted by qualified organizations, in order to conduct a transparent process which would result in a proposal to best encompass the interests of the class. (I have had considerable experience doing exactly this, both for government agencies and for the private sector, and I know that it could have been done in an expeditious and just manner.) In making these points, I also briefly stated my own qualifications and experiences and shared with the court examples of several highly qualified recipient organizations who had been mysteriously overlooked in the suggested proposal but who had unquestionably done outstanding work in this field.
In this same spirit, I also attempted to reach NAVS and VRG (as qualified applicants), to inquire whether they would be willing to participate as one voice to develop a professional process for reviewing applications for fund distribution. I spoke with a long-time colleague of VRG and offered to personally come to the VRG offices in Baltimore to have such a discussion. However, I was rebuffed. According to my contact, the VRG people would be concerned about participating in such a project because under a situation where a fair and transparent allocation was arrived at by a panel of esteemed vegetarian leaders, VRG would probably get a significantly smaller amount than the substantial slice of funds coming their way under the McDonald’s proposal. Phone calls to NAVS were not returned.
Discouraged, I joined others in attempting to intervene in the case, submitting my own declaration to the court. In my declaration I named specific organizations with questionable qualifications and experiences for doing this work in an unbiased manner (Tufts, University of North Carolina and American Dietetic Association). In addition, I also then questioned the motivations of VRG both because they seemed unwilling to participate in a proper proposal review process and because they were willing to share settlement funds with organizations whose credentials were being seriously questioned by the vegetarian community at large. I did not include NAVS in my testimony or my declaration, in part, because I had been unable to discuss my proposal with them and could not be certain of their views (although somewhat later I became aware of an e-mail from a close associate of NAVS, which he copied to me, that was berating NAVS for not raising questions about the distribution of substantial funds to these unqualified, non-vegetarian or even anti-vegetarian organizations).
I am well aware that the organizations that I question (Tufts, UNC and ADA) have made many important contributions to the field of diet and health but this is not my point. I am only speaking of a lack of serious commitment by these institutions to this field of work (vegetarianism), in large part, in my view, because of their considerable association with, and acquiescence to corporate interests.
Some have criticized my proposal of third-party review of applications for funding by qualified organizations as being rather unrealistic, perhaps too idealistic. But my critics are wrong. I have done this several times before in major governmental and university settings and I know that it would work. I also am confident that such a process was much more professional and rational and, if offered as a joint response from the vegetarian community – that is, if VRG and NAVS had been willing to join in endorsing it – it would have impressed the court (at the very least the court of public opinion!).
I also know that a settlement of this type might take any form deemed acceptable to the court and that it is not necessary to have an objective and fair review process. Nonetheless, this was an opportunity for the vegetarian community—so long in the shadows of science—to demonstrate their commitment to professional excellence. I also believe that this was an excellent opportunity for the vegetarian community to rise above the current public malaise of caving in to the desires of self-serving interests by demonstrating their own honest commitment to the public good.
I know that it has been long debated as to whether what is good for individuals is good for societies or, in contrast, whether what is good for societies is good for individuals. I am also well aware that there are benefits in each proposition. But, I submit that at a time when the concept of vegetarianism is gaining wider acceptance by the public but, paradoxically, still remains only an ‘alternative’ or even shadowy concept in the medical and scientific professions, the opportunity represented by the McDonald’s settlement could have been used to greatly enhance the professional stature of the vegetarian community.
Regrettably, I believed then—and still do now—that it has been abundantly clear that the proposal put forth by McDonald’s was nothing more than an arrangement to serve the interests of a few individuals/institutions at the expense of the larger community and the public. It was an arrangement that, in my view, was intended to minimize damage to McDonald’s interests.
I have struggled for many years with the emerging and ominous encroachment of corporate interests in this discipline of science and medicine, and have learned well how these interests occur at the expense of the public. Unfortunately, as I have watched this story unfold within the vegetarian community, I am finding it increasingly difficult to see how it differs from that which I have seen within the world of corporate-maligned academic research. When will we arise above our individual and even greedy interests to serve the larger interests of the public?
On a final point, there are a few who have said that my only interest in this case was my securing funds for our program at Cornell. Hogwash! I gave several examples in my testimony and my declaration of worthy projects that had been overlooked. Yes, I was prepared to defend the promise of our own vegetarian program but only when objectively placed in competition with other program applicants.
However, my main interest, then and now, was to arrange for a process that would have determined relative merit for all interested and qualified applicants. There are many programs with proven track records and outstanding people that were overlooked and that could have greatly contributed to a rewarding future for this idea. The evidence for consuming plant-based foods, on so many accounts, is extremely impressive and must be told to the public and I regret that this opportunity has been so squandered, merely for the sake of a few, some of whom, if possible, would have quashed the idea of vegetarianism altogether.
I am enthusiastic for the emerging evidence favoring the health value of consuming plant-based foods. I also am enthusiastic for some new methods for using rational, empirical science to demonstrate this evidence for the benefit of the public. It is time that vegetarians and non-vegetarians find ways to join forces to begin understanding the extraordinary value of nutrition to generate health, for the individual, for society, and for the planet itself. It is far too important.
T. Colin Campbell, PhD.
T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. is the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University. Campbell was trained at M.I.T. and Cornell in toxicology and nutritional biochemistry. He is amongst the world's leading experts on the nutritional causes of cancer and has conducted original research both in laboratory experiments and large scale human studies. Campbell has participated in numerous deliberations on state, national, and international policy matters, lectured extensively, and has authored over 350 publications. Campbell is Professor Emeritus, Division of Nutritional Science, Cornell University.
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