|Harish Bharti came to prominence
last summer when he learned fast-food king McDonalds was using beef
flavor in their fries.
The Seattle-based lawyer was offended and felt betrayed. He vowed to make the corporation pay for misleading its customers, especially the vegetarians and Hindus who dont eat beef.
Beginning in 1990, McDonalds said that its fries were cooked in 100 percent vegetable oil instead of a mixture of tallow and vegetable shortening. The change was made to please health conscious customers.
But the firm did not fully divulge the ingredients in the fries. Nutrition brochures do not list beef flavor as an ingredient but there is a natural flavor, which contains a small amount of tallow, used for taste. Despite the use of vegetable oil for frying, McDonalds never claimed that the fries were a vegetarian product.
I have been violated again and again for over a decade by this company, Bharti, in his 40s, said. I have eaten their French fries trusting their claim that they stopped using beef tallow over a decade ago.
I am particularly offended, in fact, I feel violated that I was taken for a ride, especially since I am a Brahmin.
Bharti was among a group of plaintiffs seeking millions of dollars from McDonalds. The firm recently came to a settlement, which calls for it to pay $10 million to charities that support vegetarian causes, issue a public apology and form an advisory board that conveys issues related to vegetarianism to the company. Twelve named plaintiffs from Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, California and Washington will also receive $4,000 each.
Bharti joined India Abroad for an interview from his office last week.
Q) What are some of the lessons from this for the immigrant community?
A) Our immigrant community should keep their heads high because we stand for principles and values. This is a land of laws and opportunity. Standing up for your rights and principles is important and pays. It is important to give our children a message that they dont have to be shy to follow traditional family values and should be proud of their own culture. Mahatma Gandhi fought against the whole British Empire and eventually brought them down because he believed in truth, justice and his cause. Through this lawsuit, we have been able to bring down a similar empire based on the same principles Gandhi taught us in the last century.
Q) How did you get involved in this?
A) Im involved in the prosecution of several class action lawsuits. I love my work because as an attorney, I step into the shoes of the attorney general to enforce the laws of our land. Basically, this is the job of the attorney general to do. The only difference is attorney generals get paid a salary by taxpayers, whereas, when I am doing the job of the attorney general, I am not paid a dime by taxpayers. I only get paid if we prove our case and get damages from the offending corporation. Then only will the court award our fees, to be paid again by the offending corporation. This doesnt cost anything to taxpayers. This is risky business, but I love the risk of taking on big giant corporations and forcing them to clean up their wrongful conduct, thereby improving our community. I do not charge an hourly fee to my clients. I spent costs from my own pocket. If I lose, clients owe me nothing. If I win, the court awards fees to be paid by the defendant.
I am representing several thousand Asian American professional engineers in a civil rights discrimination class action lawsuit against Boeing Corporation. That is a very high profile case. One engineer from California knew about my Boeing class action case and called me seeking help regarding the McDonalds case. Being a Brahmin, I took it as my obligation to the community to take on this cause. This was not just business, but more than that.
Q) There was a swami visiting your place who enjoyed eating French fries. Did you give him McDonalds fries before your knowledge about the beef flavor?
A) I love the company of swamis. I always aspired to be a swami. I lived with a swami (nuclear scientist-turned-swami) for seven years and studied the Vedas. Dr. Weetrag is a physician-turned-swami, a 90-year-old, was visiting from India and stayed with me for three months. I used to take my boys, wife Anoop and dog Buddy for a walk to the waterfront park with him. On our way back, we would sometimes order French fries for the swami. He would eat them, thinking they were 100 percent vegetarian. I felt very bad and thought that I had failed in my duty as a host to this swami when I learned the truth about beef flavoring. This lawsuit is my way of vindicating both.
Q) How much help did you get from the Eric Schlosser book, Fast Food Nation?
A) I only read the book after the lawsuit was already filed. I liked the book, since it is very informative.
Q) Did you get discouraged at any point of time during the ordeal?
A) Once I take up a cause I always see it through. Discouragement is not in my vocabulary. I cannot afford to such ideas or feelings, because I have too much responsibility to my clients and the millions of class members (in the McDonalds case) counting on me. I was already prepared for a long and hard battle with a mighty corporation, stronger than even some small nations. I never considered anything but success for even a second. I always drew my strength from Mahatma Gandhi (we share the same birthday). I am used to taking on big corporations. I never go after small defendants. Where is the challenge in that?
Q) Were you afraid about taking
on a big corporation?
A) Before I filed the lawsuit, without exception, everybody discouraged me from going after McDonald's. Powerful lawyers who were my well-wishers also advised against taking on this giant. I was told horror stories how McDonald's had harassed protestors in London. I was reminded of their unlimited resources to fight back. Even media personalities asked me on the air, 'Mr. Bharti, aren't you aware of what McDonald's did to protestors in London? And afraid as well?' I was told McDonald's had hired several detective agencies against those protestors, and sometimes detective agencies were spying on each other, not knowing the other was working for the same employer. I simply smiled and continued with my business.
Q) As a devout Hindu, do you
A) I meditate regularly and also teach meditation without any charge. I am a vegetarian. I have never tasted alcohol and I have never smoked in my life. I learned meditation, the Vedas, and astrology early on in my life. I wanted to be a swami when I was in my 20s, but I was advised to live in the world and do my "Sadhna (service) by serving the community. I was a fighter and hated injustice. I thought fighting for justice, as a lawyer, is the best way to serve God.
Q) People may have grumbled that may be you were in this controversy for fame or money. Your response?
A) A lawyers job is to protect the community from law-breakers. This is not just a business for profit. Imparting justice is God's work and has to be pure and whole-hearted. Anyone who is in this business for himself or money is in the wrong business and will end up a frustrated individual. Law practice is all about sacrifice. Sometimes you may even have to risk your own life. Sacrificing time and money is just the bare essential. Once I had to sell my family car to pay for trial transcripts and an expert witness to help defend a battered woman on a murder charge. I had to try the case three times. I never gave up until the woman was freed and now it is a reported case in the law journals as well as a case authority that can be used by other lawyers and judges in similar cases. The judge who made unwise rulings lost her job and here I am, still practicing. I take cases nobody else would dare to take, but somehow the same cases rejected by others become high profile after I take them on. I have represented numerous needy individuals without charging any fee. Money is the last thing a lawyer should think about. Clients/causes always comes first.
Q) Tell us about your family.
A) Anoop is like an angela kind, generous and wise soul. She supports and complements my values and principles. She is a wonderful mother, wife and person. I have two sons, Manu, 13, and Munish, 11. We have a springer spaniel dog, Buddy, who goes everywhere with the familysometimes he even flies with us on vacation trips.
Q) How has your family been in this tough time? Your wife seems to have understood where you are coming from.
A) This case took an enormous amount of time and dedication. I had to cancel two pre-paid and pre-scheduled vacation trips with my family because of this case. I had to work on Christmas as well as other holidays to prepare for a hefty motion to enable me to disclose confidential documents to my clients, despite opposition from lawyers on both sides. I finally prevailed and shared all confidential information with my clients. The lawyers in other states, who were opposing my efforts to share information with my clients and who were also hiding information from their own clients, were fired by their clients. I have never shied away from standing up for the right cause, no matter how strong the opposition. Without my wifes support, I couldn't have done any of it.
Q) What is most attractive
about the settlement?
A) In the last 100 years, no other mega-corporation has paid millions of dollars and apologized, admitted wrongdoing, and agreed to disclose ingredients when they had been hiding for years. This is an unheard of result in this country. Moreover, McDonald's is known for being the industry leader and hiring lobbyists to obstruct disclosure for several decades. McDonald's was also known for not taking criticisms nicely and for fighting their opponents aggressively. This has changed the way the food industry giants will behave in the future and how they treat their customers. This is a great day of victory for all consumers and Hindus alike. Our children and grandchildren will continue to reap the benefits of this victory. The benefits can never be calculated in terms of money. No money at trial could have brought these far-reaching benefits to society.
Q) Will not having a huge amount of money worth the time and effort?
This issue is beyond money. This victory has changed the food industry from this point on. For generations to come, all consumers will reap the benefits of disclosure of the food ingredients. Theres no way I would trade more money for the apology. An apology is something you can't get out of a trial. Ten years down the road, no one will remember the money. But this apology and disclosure will change the way the food industry treats its customers because McDonald's is the leader in the industry and everyone else will have to follow.
Q) What was the community response in Seattle? From the Indian community?
A) I am pleased with a very positive response from not only this community, but from all over the world. My office is receiving messages of congratulations from all over the world including the government of India.
Q) What's next for you?
A) I have several other class action lawsuits already in court and more ready to be filed. For a while I was unable to take new cases. There are a lot of clients in the waiting line. I have been only taking cases when a client was dumped by other lawyers close to trial, and they had no other hope. I will continue to help such individuals in high-risk cases. I love high-risk cases and teaching trial techniques to lawyers and legal interns.