McDonald's apologises, pays $10 mn to veggies
Harish Bharti
WASHINGTON: Fast food behemoth McDonald's has agreed to publicly apologise to "Hindus, vegetarians and others" for failing to disclose the use of animal products in foods it identified as vegetarian.

The company will also donate $10 million to concerns supported by these groups as part of a settlement in a class-action lawsuit initiated by Seattle-based Indian-American attorney Harish Bharti.

Starting next month, pending court approval, the fast food giant will insert advertisements in newspapers apologising for its mistake.

"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 US restaurants were improperly identified as vegetarian," the ads will say.

"We regret we did not provide these customers with complete information, and we sincerely apologise for any hardship that these miscommunications have caused among Hindus, vegetarians and others," the settlement-ad will say. As a result of the flap, and under the terms of the settlement, McDonald's has also promised to enhance its disclosure standards and create a Dietary Practice/Vegetarian Advisory Panel of experts that will advise the fast food chain on dietary restrictions and guidelines.
The lawsuit arose from an episode in April 2001 when some Indian-American vegetarians on the West Coast accused McDonald's of misleading customers by presenting its golden fries as vegetarian.

While McDonald did phase out animal fat in favour of vegetable oil for frying, it was later revealed that the firm continued to use "miniscule" amounts of beef flavouring to "enhance" taste.

The admission, in the form of an e-mail message from a McDonald's executive to an inquiring Indian-American customer, led to the widely-reported lawsuit. The episode also provoked protests in India. McDonald's has a modest number of outlets in India and has sales of nearly $20 billion annually worldwide.

In an interview with this correspondent, Harish Bharti, the expansive Seattle attorney who oversaw the effort, said he had decided to settle with
McDonald's after having proved the point.

"In the last 100 years, this is the first giant corporation to apologise, admit wrongdoing and also pay millions of dollars," Bharti claimed adding
that he was not "fully satisfied" with the monetary aspects of the deal but "money isn't everything."