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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...

McDonald's Lawsuit Appeal UPDATE
by Jeff Nelson

June 12, 2004

The latest update on the McDonald’s lawsuit takes three forms:

  • an update on the appeal filed in the case;
  • a public statement from Professor T. Colin Campbell relating to his involvement in the case, and
  • a piece by Jeff Nelson correcting a tabloid-type article about the McDonald's case, written by VRG-author Keith Akers and published in a vegetarian periodical with financial ties to NAVS (VRG and NAVS are the principal recipients of the settlement allocation proposed by McDonald's Corporation, and currently being appealed). Below is also a letter to the editor John Robbins wrote in response to the Akers article.
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1) Update on the McDonald’s appeal

In 2001 McDonald’s was sued for allegedly misrepresenting its French fries as “vegetarian” when, in fact, they contain beef. As part of the settlement McDonald's made a public apology and agreed to donate $6 million to "vegetarian organizations" that are "dedicated to the values of vegetarianism."

That’s what the settlement agreement said, but when it came time to select a list of vegetarian organizations to receive the settlement money, McDonald’s put beef in the settlement, too. They engineered it to give a large portion of the money to non-vegetarian and even anti-vegetarian groups. The lawyers supposedly representing vegetarians in the case – none of whom were part of the secular vegetarian class themselves – essentially played ball with McDonald’s Corporation, ignoring and refusing to even communicate with some of the largest and oldest vegetarian organizations.

Every major vegetarian leader came out in opposition to the McDonald’s proposed allocation and many groups like Vegan Outreach and the Vegetarian Legal Action Network (which drafted the original complaint) also opposed it. A large group ended up appealing the case after the judge in the matter rubber-stamped the McDonald’s proposal. The group objecting included Alex Hershaft of Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM); Mark Epstein, Lynn Grudnik and Mary Liro from the National Health Association; Gene and Lorri Bauston of Farm Sanctuary; Jo Stepaniak of Grass Roots Veganism; T. Colin Campbell of Cornell; Stanley & Rhoda Sapon of Vegan Values; James Glackin, and John McDougall MD.

Their appeal was filed in November of 2003.

Last month McDonald’s filed its opposition to the appeal, and the appellants filed their reply brief.

In opposing the appeal, McDonald’s has argued that the term “vegetarian organization” has no meaning, and that McDonald’s and the plaintiff attorneys (supposedly representing vegetarians) had intentionally adopted what they knew was a vague and ambiguous term when they drafted the settlement. McDonald’s further stated that the trial court had implicitly ruled, as requested by McDonald’s, that a “vegetarian organization, dedicated to the values of vegetarianism” means any organization, regardless of what it is or does, that agrees to undertake some project which McDonald’s Corporation deems to be of potential benefit to vegetarians. As incredible as it sounds, this is what McDonald's has actually argued.

McDonald’s did not argue, however, that other definitions it used in constructing the settlement agreement, such as “Hindu organizations dedicated to the values of Hinduism” were meaningless. That term clearly meant (to McDonald’s) that money earmarked for Hindu organizations should go to groups of Hindus which work to advance or promote Hinduism. It was only “vegetarian organization” that McDonald’s maintains to be a meaningless term, and only for the purpose of awarding "vegetarian organization" settlement money. (It is interesting to note, as the appellants did, that several of the organizations which McDonald’s selected to receive money, explicitly stated, as noted in declarations at court, that they are not “vegetarian organizations.” McDonald’s and their corporate dictionary beg to differ!)

The next step in the appeal is for oral arguments to be presented, which could take place sometime in the next nine months to a year. Then it could be several more months before the appeals court renders its decision.

2) Letter from Dr. Campbell

Professor T. Colin Campbell of Cornell, a celebrated researcher and champion of the vegan diet, recently learned he has been the subject of a whispered smear campaign in apparent retaliation for his efforts to seek justice in the McDonald’s matter. This has prompted him to issue a public statement. You can read Dr. Campbell’s statement linked below.

3) Response to Keith Akers

An article purporting to present “the story” of the McDonald’s lawsuit appeared last month in a animal rights-oriented periodical called VegNews. The article, written by Keith Akers, was replete with errors and uninformed speculation, as detailed at the link below.

Akers had attempted to contact many of the highly regarded individuals who are appealing the McDonald's case in order to interview them for his article. However, none would speak with him about it. Some of the appellants felt from their own past interactions with Akers that he lacked the skill and journalistic integrity to tackle such a story. Most simply ignored his request for an interview.

Dear VegNews:

I was disappointed in your unfair portrayal of VegSource's Jeff Nelson in your April/May article on the McDonald's lawsuit.  Nelson worked with numerous experts in the vegetarian movement to challenge a patently unfair and, indeed, laughable distribution of funds from the McDonald's lawsuit.  He courageously fought the allocation of "vegetarian money" to non-vegetarian organizations and other groups receiving a disproportionate share of the funds. 

While I respect a disagreement among vegetarians as to the distribution of this money, it's unfair to portray Nelson as a pariah in the movement because he challenged this settlement.  Your article not only misstates and criticizes Nelson's position but it also criticizes the very fact that he challenged the distribution of the money. That's where you crossed the line of objective journalism into subjective commentary.

It's incorrect to say that this kind of dissention is "absolutely unprecedented in the history of the modern vegetarian movement." Worse, it's just silly to expect us to agree on everything or else keep our mouths shut. 

Finally, it's hypocritical to criticize Nelson for being divisive when your article does the exact thing in respect to someone whose company is a competitor of yours. I know from conversations with some of the people you interviewed that you incorrectly characterized them as being opposed to what Nelson was doing.  Nelson is stirring up the vegetarian community based upon principle and not money.  Can we say the same about your publication?

John Borders, JD
Louisville, KY

A lack of access to the facts and people involved in the case might have stopped a reputable writer from doing an article -- but not Akers. He wrote 6,000 words anyway -- an article termed a "hack job" by the lawyer fighting against McDonald's (who also wasn't interviewed by Akers), and a "smear" piece by one of the vegetarian movement's most respected voices.

VegNews publisher, Joe Connelly, was even notified shortly after assigning the McDonald's article to Akers about the unreliability of Akers’ past work, but did not heed the warnings. Connelly neglected to check facts and quotes in the story which Akers submitted. As a result, Connelly ended up publishing Akers' inaccuracies and misquotes (see John Robbins' letter to Connelly below complaining about the article, as well as Bruce Friedrich's rejection of the quote attributed to him in the article). Since nearly half of Akers' lengthy article was about me, minimal journalistic standards would call for Connelly to contact me before publishing it to get a quote, if he were attempting to be fair. I had already attempted to communicate with Connelly about the article when I first heard Connelly had assigned it to Akers, but Connelly ignored me.

John Robbins wrote to Connelly he was “not happy at all” with Akers’ methods. But Connelly didn't make any public admission about the problems in the story. Instead, he published in the next edition of VegNews that he "stands by" Akers' story, even in the face of emails he received from people misquoted in the story (like John Robbins and Bruce Friedrich) and people with firsthand information and involvement in the case, who had told Connelly Akers' story was deeply flawed and inaccurate. Certainly if VegSource published a story and highly respected people in the community who had been misquoted in the story wrote me to complain, I would at a minimum offer to publish their complaints, even if doing so were embarassing or showed I had acted with poor judgement. I would not pretend the correction letters didn't exist, fail to publish them, and essentially blow off these people saying I "stand by" the story. And yet, that is how Connelly opted to handle the situation.

You can read the Letters to the Editor sent to Connelly from John Robbins and from me (Jeff Nelson), linked below, which are among the many letters with negative comments about the story Connelly received and chose not to publish in VegNews.

Colin Campbell's piece linked below setting the record straight on his own involvement in the case was prompted in part by seeing the many distortions in the Akers' article.

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