Dispute Over McDonald's Lawsuit Settlement Gains Momentum

The dispute over how to spend $6 million McDonald’s agreed to pay to non-profit vegetarian organizations gained steam and national coverage with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals weighing in against a proposed award to a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill researcher.

Those opposed to the current settlement have petitioned the court to reject the current disbursement plans. For its part, McDonald’s has filed briefs with the court overseeing the settlement that attacks the characterizes the animal rights groups leading the charge against the proposed settlement as “zealous radicals.”

Much of the national media coverage focused on opposition to UNC nutrition researcher Steve Zeisel. Here’s how Jeff Nelson of VegSource.Com sums up the case against Zeisel,

VRG [Vegetarian Resource Group] submitted the only declaration in support of the proposal, even endorsing the money earmarked to go to the anti-vegetarian animal researcher at University of North Carolina — a researcher who seeks to prove his personal hypothesis that the vegan diet is very unsafe for pregnant women who need to eat eggs when pregnant in order to get sufficient choline.

PETA’s Hannah Schein told the Associated Press that,

The money is supposed to be earmarked for vegetarian groups. He doesn’t represent a vegetarian gruop. If anything, he recommends that pregnant women not be vegetarian.

What exactly are Nelson and PETA afraid that Zeisel might find?

Zeisel wants to use the money he would receive to study whether or not pregnant vegetarian women receive enough choline.

Choline is a vitamin-like substance that is crucial in the body’s production of an important nerve messenger chemical. In 1998 the National Academy of Sciences? Institute of Medicine recommended choline be recognized as a crucial human nutrient.

Choline is found mainly in eggs, meat and milk, so it would hardly be surprising to find choline deficiency in pregnant vegetarian and vegan women. You’d think that VegSource.Com and PETA would want such a study (especially since adequate choline can probably be obtained from vegan sources). As Zeisel told the Associated Press,

Pregnancy is a time that women have to be careful about their diet and be sure they are well-balanced. This is not a time to be a careless vegetarian. If we’re going to learn something about the science of this, you need to go to the places that can do the science.

Of course neither PETA nor VegSource.Com have ever been particularly careful about vetting their statements to ensure scientific accuracy. Much better to simply push the ideology and hope nobody notices the man behind the curtain.


McDonald’s Attacks Vegetarian Leaders. Jeff Nelson, VegSource.Com, January 6, 2003.

Grant for UNC researcher riles animal activists. Associated Press, January 10, 2003.

Lawyer hits McD on suit settlement process. Sandra Guy, Chicago Sun-Times, January 10, 2003.

Jeff Nelson Attacks McDonald's Lawsuit Settlement

This summer McDonald’s decided to settle a class action lawsuit brought against it by vegetarians upset that the fast food chain had claimed its french fries were free of animal products when, in fact, the flavoring added to the fries used a small amount of a beef byproduct.

The lawsuit was started by Seattle attorney Harish Bharti, but when the settlement was announced Bharti complained loudly about how it was being developed. Although the judge order the plaintiffs attorneys to work with McDonald’s to craft a settlement proposal that the court could consider, Bharti complained that the other plaintiff’s lawyers were working on just such a settlement. Bharti was angry that groups he wanted to receive settlement money were excluded from the settlement.

Now Jeff Nelson is attacking the proposed settlements on similar grounds and going after the Vegetarian Resource Group and the North American Vegetarian Society charging them with “sleeping with the enemy” because both groups are likely to receive substantial sums as a result of the settlement (VegSource itself is ineligible since it is not a nonprofit).

Nelson writes,

What most vegetarians don’t know is that the settlement is more offensive than McDonald’s original deception of its vegetarian customers — because McDonald’s is attempting to steer millions of dollars of the settlement monies to animal researchers and anti-vegetarian organizations by simply calling them “vegetarian organizations.”

. . .

Most vegetarians are also unaware that a few vegetarian organizations like the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) and the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) have acted out of such extreme self-interest that they are aiding and abetting the attorneys who are perpetrating this outrage. Why would they do that? Because these few organizations — with McDonald’s blessing — stand to receive millions of dollars from McDonald’s themselves. They are upset that anyone is now rocking the boat and might endanger their hopes to become enriched.

Nelson’s anger comes on the heels of the attorneys in the case releasing a proposed list of the groups who will receive the $10 million. The breakdown for the $6 million earmarked for vegetarian groups looks like this,


Proposed Award

Vegetarian Resource Group
North American Vegetarian Society
Tufts University
Preventative Medicine Research Institute
American Dietetic Association Foundation
The American Vegan Society
Sound Vision Foundation
UNC, Chapel Hill, Dept. of Nutrition
Vegetarian Vision, Inc.
Loma Linda University
Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products

Nelson’s wrath is directed squarely at NAVS. According to Nelson, the settlement agreement required an announcement to be placed in NAVS’ magazine, Vegetarian Voice, announcing the settlement and explaining how vegetarian groups could apply to receive settlement money. According to Nelson, NAVS director Brian Graff admitted that the announcement had never been placed in Vegetarian Voice due to “deadline problems.” Nelson writes,

As already noted, Brian Graff of NAVS kept to himself the information about how to apply for monies. This is more than unethical; it dishonestly takes advantage of privileged — “insider” — information. He had a responsibility to the class of plaintiffs to share this information, but his failure to disseminate it widely made it very difficult, if not impossible, for many vegetarian organizations to apply. McDonald’s now proposes to reward this behavior by giving him $1 million.

Oddly enough, Nelson then follows that up by trying to claiming that “NAVS is an organization with a very small membership that represents a miniscule proportion of the nation’s vegetarians. In addition to a magazine of limited circulation that is published irregularly . . . ” which seems to undercut his claims of how essential an ad in Vegetarian Voice was.

Nelson is also unhappy that both NAVS and the Vegan Resource Group will substantially benefit from the settlement even though both groups were opposed to the filing of the lawsuit in the first place. He accuses VRG of being in bed with McDonald’s,

It also has a close relationship with McDonald’s, promoting their products, and VRG has the same public stance on “natural flavors” for which McDonald’s was sued — namely, erring on the side of declaring products “vegetarian” when they know that “natural flavors” might mean they contain animal products. . .

In their magazine, VRG also disparaged the lawsuit and people who sue fast food chains, asserting in their editorial that such lawsuits do harm to the vegetarian cause. Additionally, VRG aided McDonald’s in 1997 after McDonald’s informed them the fries had beef product in them, and VRG did not inform the public for several months.

The rest of Nelson’s complaints largely boil down to Nelson disliking a particular group and so arguing it shouldn’t receive any funding. For example, Loma Linda University is slated to receive $250,000 which it plans to use to expand circulation of its Vegetarian Nutrition and Health newsletter as well a develop a web site with vegetarian nutrition information. Nelson complains,

Just how Loma Linda plans to “expand circulation” of a newsletter using $250,000 is not stated. But this lawsuit was not filed so that some university could reap a windfall for a newsletter which they already charged people to subscribe to.

Nelson is also unhappy that Tufts University is slated to receive $800,000. Tufts Nutrition Department evaluates nutrition information and criticizes individuals and groups it finds wanting. Nelson, therefore, accuses them of being anti-vegetarian because they’ve pointed out some of the more nutty claims of John McDougall.

Nelson also doesn’t want to see The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, receive $250,000 for a study of pregnant vegan women. Nelson thinks UNC professor Stephen Zeisel doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he’s got proof — animal research contradicts Zeisel. Nelson writes (emphasis added),

Zeisel has been quoted in multiple publications stating he believes that vegan women should go off the vegan diet when pregnant, and eat eggs, drink milk and perhaps eat beef liver. Those are foods rich in choline, and Zeisel knows from his lab experiments that when you remove chlorine from the diet of rats, the rats produce babies with birth defects.

That’s right folks, even Jeff Nelson now apparently recognizes the importance of animal research in evaluating the dietary requirements of human beings.

Finally, Nelson complains that the three Muslim groups included — the Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products, IFANCA, and Sound Vision Foundation — are not really vegetarian since they include information about the humane slaughter of animals (halal). But earlier in his essay Nelson claims there are 16 million vegetarians in the United States. The only way there are 16 million vegetarians is if you include those “vegetarians” who tell pollsters that they occasionally eat meat. Here Nelson is trying to have his tofu and eat it to, using one definition of vegetarian when it suits his purposes and another definition when it doesn’t (shocking coming from Nelson — not!)


Sleeping with the enemy. Jeff Nelson, VegSource.Com, December 11, 2002.