McDonald's serves up beefy apology

By Sara Jean Green

Seattle Times staff reporter

To settle a flap over beef flavor in its French fries, McDonald's has agreed to pay $10 million to Hindu, vegetarian, kosher and children's charities and to publicly apologize for misleading consumers.

The fast-food giant will also set up an advisory board to counsel the company on vegetarian dietary issues and propose meatless menu items.

The deal, signed by McDonald's and the plaintiff attorneys for class-action lawsuits, is expected to be approved later this month in an Illinois superior court, said Harish Bharti, a Seattle attorney who filed the first suit here in May.

"Without an apology I wouldn't have thought of settling. An apology was more important to my clients than anything else," Bharti, who is Hindu and does not eat meat, said yesterday.

Bharti filed a class-action suit in California soon after the one he filed in behalf of Washington vegetarians. Suits in Illinois, Texas, New Jersey and Canada soon followed. The suits said McDonald's deliberately misled customers who don't eat meat products by using beef tallow in its fries and hash browns long after making a widely publicized 1990 pledge to cook them in vegetable oil. McDonald's admitted using beef extract, not beef tallow.

Under the agreement, the dozen plaintiffs in the five U.S. cases would each receive $4,000, Bharti said. He said the court could also approve up to $2.4 million that would go to the plaintiffs' attorneys.

In addition, McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Ill., has agreed to disclose the ingredients in its menu items.

"I'm very proud of receiving the disclosure," Bharti said. "In the long run, it's the best thing for the American consumer because McDonald's is a leader in the industry, and everybody else will have to follow. It's how the food industry will have to behave in the future."

McDonald's has agreed to publish its apology in newspapers after the settlement is completed. In a copy of the apology obtained by The Seattle Times, the company acknowledges "mistakes were made in communicating to the public and customers about the ingredients in our French fries and hash browns."

The apology goes on: "Those mistakes included instances in which French fries and hash browns sold at U.S. restaurants were improperly identified as 'vegetarian.' "

Along with expressing regret for failing to provide customers with complete information and causing hardship among Hindus and vegetarians, the company states that it "has enhanced its disclosures concerning the source of ingredients in its food products" and pledges to make the information available at McDonald's Web site, www.mcdonalds.com, and at each of its stores.

McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker could not be reached for comment yesterday.

While Bharti was pleased with the agreement, he is "not fully satisfied" with the money the company has to pay out.

"But there's no way I would trade more money for the apology. An apology is something you can't get out of a trial," he said.

After he wraps up the lawsuits here, Bharti hopes to reach a settlement on behalf of six plaintiffs in Vancouver, B.C., because the McDonald's apology and disclosure agreement does not extend to the 39 other countries where the Big Mac is sold.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com.

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