July 5, 2002

Ancient religions, beef-besmirched french fries and a Mc-million-dollar settlement will tangle in a Chicago courtroom next week.

At stake is more than $12 million that Ronald McDonald's corporate ringmasters have agreed to pay for not telling people for more than a decade that a "natural flavoring" in their potatoes owes more to cows than spuds.

The class-action lawsuits filed last year included Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and vegetarians - all groups with clear reasons for wanting beef-free fries.

But this week, American Muslims started an e-mail campaign, saying that the Islamic food code called "halal" means they were just as injured by McDonald's and should be included in the settlement.

Muslims who follow halal are supposed to avoid eating beef that was not slaughtered according to specific ritual requirements. Muslims who ate McDonald's fries assuming that the potatoes were halal have until Monday to officially register their unhappiness with a judge in Chicago.

"Personally, I started eating the fries based on the information they [McDonald's] gave," said Abdul Malik Mujahid, president of Soundvision, which sells Islam-related products, and former national president of the Islamic Circle of North America. "Muslim consumers should have been part of the lawsuit to begin with."

That only a smidgen of beef was included in the fries didn't make it acceptable, said Cherie Travis, a Chicago-area vegetarian who has been active in the legal fight. She is working with a lawyer who is trying to gain formal recognition for Muslims in the settlement.

"What if they said, 'There's only a little bit of poodle in there'? If you're offended, the quantity is not the issue," she said.

Some Hindus in Texas, including those whose names were on a suit filed in the state, agree that the settlement needs to be reworked.

"Some of the groups included in the settlement have nothing to do with groups actually harmed by all this," said Atul Badwal of Houston. He and three other Hindus originally named in the Texas suit discharged their lawyers earlier this year but were replaced by other Hindus.

And the Hindu lawyer who filed the first suit in Seattle filed a long protest last week, stating that the preliminary payout plan is the legal equivalent of junk food.

"The process is completely unfair, a sham, and full of conflict of interest," said Harish Bharti.

But lawyers in Texas, California, Illinois and New Jersey are struggling to keep the carefully crafted settlement - including more than $2.5 million in legal fees - from getting trashed.

The agreement is a good deal, said Cory Fein, a lawyer in the Houston law firm of Caddell & Chapman. It gets McDonald's to change its policy of hiding the origin of its flavorings, apologize for its misdeeds and provide considerable money to support causes of those who were injured, he said.

Inevitably, an agreement like this isn't going to satisfy everyone, he said.

"Our job is not to avoid making people mad," Mr. Fein said.

"It is to benefit the class the best way we can."

Muslims aren't named in the settlement simply because Muslims weren't part of the original suits, he said. Their interests will be served, he said, by money that is earmarked for support of vegetarian causes.

The settlement can be derailed in at least two ways. If enough people who are part of the group covered by the class-action suit file strong enough objections, the judge can decide to throw out the agreement.

And if more than 200 people who can prove they are members of the class tell the court that they want to "opt out" of the settlement and preserve their rights to file a separate lawsuit, McDonald's has the right to back out.

Monday is the deadline for either objecting or opting out.

Muslims are responding to the e-mail request, said Mr. Mujahid, who sent out the alert from his soundvision.com Web site. And Gregory Kazarian, a Chicago lawyer, said he has Muslim clients whom he will represent at a hearing Monday.

Officially, McDonald's is watching and waiting.

"No class actions have been filed on behalf of Muslims that I am aware of," said McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker.

"Meanwhile, vegetarians of all faiths are included in the class under the supervision of the courts. Discussions are ongoing, and therefore it is inappropriate to speculate about their outcome."

Tweaking the recipe The genesis of the dispute goes back to the dawn of McDonald's. Founder Ray Kroc wrote in his autobiography that "the French fry would become almost sacrosanct for me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously."

The culinary gospel according to Kroc put beef tallow in the deep-fryer to create the tastiest of fast-food fries. But in 1990, the company issued a new testament about the oil: Beef fat would be replaced with heart-healthier "100 percent vegetable oil."

The company didn't say that it tried to resurrect the old good taste by adding a hint of beef essence as "natural flavoring."

But last year, the secret was revealed by India West, a newspaper that serves Indian immigrants in the United States.

Protesters in the United States said McDonald's had snookered them into eating a very unhappy meal. Imagine how Catholics might react to the sacrilege if they discovered that a soda company had secretly included a trace of holy water in the mix.

For Hindus - and Sikhs, members of a separate India-based faith - the cow is holy and beef is never to be eaten.

McDonald's restaurants in the United States don't meet strict standards of kosher for other reasons. But even Jews who observe less stringently don't eat beef unless it has been slaughtered according to ritual. Even then, they aren't supposed to mix meat and milk products. Eating cow-enhanced potatoes with a milk shake would violate both standards.

Vegetarians obviously would want their fries beef-free.

Lawyers for the two sides met with a mediator in California in December. In the language they hammered out, McDonald's yadda-yadda'ed in legalese about having done nothing wrong.

But the company also agreed to issue a candid apology that says, in part, that "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."

McDonald's also agreed to pay more than $2.5 million to the lawyers. The company also agreed to give $6 million to charitable groups that support vegetarianism, $2 million to Hindu or Sikh groups, $1 million to groups that promote kosher practices and $1 million for children's nutrition and/or children's hunger relief.

McDonald's would work with the other lawyers to designate the organizations that would get the money.

But some of the original parties to the suit quickly raised objections. Why should youngsters' nutrition be included? What about members of faith groups - such as Muslims and vegetarian Buddhists - who might say they were just as injured as Hindus, Sikhs or Jews? And why should McDonald's have a role in deciding who gets the money?

"It is like having a rapist decide the fate of rape victims," Mr. Bharti said.

Direct Muslim involvement in the case is recent. Mr. Mujahid, the Muslim businessman, and Mr. Kazarian, the lawyer, hooked up in the last few weeks.

McDonald's should have reached out to Muslims in the United States, Mr. Mujahid said. The company works with Muslims in other countries to make sure products there meet Muslim dietary laws. But Muslims in the United States should have come forward sooner, he said.

"It's a learning process. The Muslim community is small and a young community in this country," he said. "The responsibility is not just of the company but of Muslims, too."

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