It was started by a Seattle lawyer, Harish Bharti, a vegetarian Hindu who makes a habit out of identifying the ingredients in purportedly vegetarian foods. He examined McDonald's French fries. Back in 1990, news reports appeared that started for example, "McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King are switching to all-vegetable oil to cook theft fries." The reason was to reduce the saturated fat content (bad for the heart), which, in McDonalds's case, went from 42 grams to 23 grams for a two-ounce serving of fries. Previously, the fries were cooked with beef tallow. Our on-line dictionary appetizingly defines tallow a, "Hard fat obtained from parts of the bodies of cattle, sheep or horses, and used in foodstuffs or to make candles, leather dressing, soap and lubricants." Yum.
The problem for McDonald's was that the veggie-oil cooked fries didn't taste like their popular tallow-cooked fries, which they solved by including a beef flavoring at the time of preprocessing for distribution (not while being cooked in the restaurant). Under the US government's food guidelines, they were allowed to label this beef flavoring as "natural flavor," which it is. But because of the hype over the switch to vegetable oil for frying, vegetarians assumed - and McDonald's did not try to dissuade - that the fries were now vegetarian.
Bharti sued McDonalds in 2001, and that grew into a class-action law suit involving a number of lawyers and organizations. Ultimately, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, vegetarians and vegans joined the fray - the Jews because the beef flavoring was not kosher and the Muslims because it wasn't halal.
In March, 2002, the lawsuit was close to being settled. McDonald's agreed to issue a formal apology, better disclosure of ingredients, creation of an advisory board and payment of US $10,000,000 to organizations which promote vegetarianism and issues related to the fries.
The apology reads, in part, "McDonald's sincerely apologizes to Hindus, vegetarians and others for failing to provide the kind of information they needed to make informed dietary decision at our U.S. restaurants. We acknowledge that, upon our switch to vegetable oil in the early 1990s for the purpose of reducing cholesterol, mistakes were made in communicating to the public and customers about ingredients in our French fries and hash browns. The mistakes included instances in which French fries and hash browns sold at U.S. restaurants were improperly identified as 'vegetarian.'" It is part of the settlement that the full apology be printed in Veggie Life, India Tribune and Hinduism Today.
"Bharti wrote at the time, "I am proud of obtaining the apology (with admission of wrongdoing), the enhanced disclosure from McDonald's and the advisory board. This means a lot to my clients and me, because this is very valuable for the consumer interest in the long run. In the last 100 years this is the first giant corporation to apologize, admit wrongdoing and also pay millions of dollars."
McDonald's is indeed giant, and serves as a kind of magnet for all criticism of beg business (see www.mcspotlight.org). For the year 2002, McDonald's worldwide income was $15.4 billion. More than 30,000 local McDonald's restaurants serve 46 million customers each day in more than 100 countries.
Organizations were invited to submit specific proposals to Bharti and the other lawyers for a share in the settlement. The money was to go, according to McDonald's to Hindu, vegetarian and other groups whose charitable and educational activities are closely linked to the concerns of these consumers [having dietary restrictions]." The Hindu Heritage Endowment, founded by Hinduism Today's creator, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, was invited to submit a request. HHE proposed to put any settlement share in its HINDUISM TODAY Distribution Fund to increase the magazine's free distribution in the US, on the basis that the magazine has consistently promoted vegetarianism among Hindus. …