McDonald's Supersizes Hindu Endowment:
$10 Million Settlement-Includes $255,000 for Hinduism Today International Magazine
Hindu Press International
KAUAI, HAWAII, July 4, 2005: They deceived the public about beef flavorings in their "vegetarian fries." They got caught. They were sued. They settled in court. This week the food giant McDonald's mailed a check for US$254,773.19 to Hinduism Today magazine's endowment fund (Hindu Heritage Endowment), one of a handful of elite vegetarian-friendly institutions in America chosen as recipients of the court-ordered $10 million settlement.
It was all 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 stated, for example, "McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King are switching to all-vegetable oil to cook their fries." The reason was to reduce the saturated fat content (bad for the heart), which, in McDonald'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 as, "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 McDonald's in 2001, and that grew into a 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 decisions 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 the ingredients in our french fries and hash browns. Those 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 big business (see http://www.mcspotlight.org). For the year 2002, McDonald's worldwide income was $15.4 billion, which yielded a net profit of $893 million. 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.
In May, 2003, the Illinois court where the suit was litigated, announced the 24 organizations awarded money under the settlement, one of which was the Hinduism Today endowment. The groups and the amount of settlement is:
Hindu: International/American Gita Society, $50,000; Hinduism Today Endowment, $250,000; Supporting Excellence in Education, $900,000; Council of Hindu Temples of North America $200,000; SSV Temple, $50,000; Hindu Students Council, $500,000
Muslim: Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products, $100,000; Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, $450,000
Jewish: Jewish Community Centers Association, $200,000; Orthodox Union, $150,000; Star-K/Torah.Org, $300,000; CLAL, $50,000; The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (Hillel), $300,000.
Sikh: Guru Harkrishan Institute of Sikh Studies, $50,000
Vegetarian: Vegetarian Resource Group, $1,400,000; ADAF Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, $600,000; Preventive Medicine Research Institute, $550,000; North American Vegetarian Society, $1,000,000; Vegetarian Vision, Inc., $250,000; American Vegan Society, $500,000; Loma Linda University, $300,000
Academic/Other: Tufts University, $850,000; Produce for Better Health Foundation, $500,000; Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC"), $500,000.
An appeal was dismissed just last month, and the final disbursement made at the beginning of July, 2005.
So, what will Kauai's Hindu Monastery do with these funds? The monks plan to place the entire amount, just over $250,000, in the magazine's permanent endowment. None of the principle will be touched, so this will be a perpetual source for funding outright 1,000 or more subscriptions a year forever, or subsidize a larger number. In short, their supersized endowment will educate Americans, especially youth, about the merits of a veggie lifestyle, which has been a Hindu ideal for 6,000 years or more. A spokesmonk from the monastery noted they were "humbled" to be counted among some of America's most respected educational institutions.
Hindu vegetarians around the world may wish to take note of the little-publicized fact that McDonald's made no changes in their fries, which are still beef-flavoring saturated. Sure, the oil is vegetable. But make no mistake about it. There is meat in those luscious Golden Arches french fries.