May 8, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/ Arthur J. Pais

'I've Been Violated For Over A Decade'

Harish Bharti sees more than millions of dollars when he begins discussing the class-action lawsuit he has slapped against McDonald's.

"This fight is not over money," he says . "For I have been violated again and again for over a decade by this company," he says with a sigh.

"I have eaten their French fries trusting their claim that they stopped using beef tallow over a decade ago," he says. "I am particularly offended, in fact, I feel violated that I was taken for a ride, especially since I am a Brahmin."

He is more upset that Swami Weetrag who had stayed with him in Seattle for several months also ate the French fries.

"Of course, God will understand why all this happened," Bharti says. "But I feel very very uncomfortable that a sadhu violated his vows - even if it happened unwittingly."

The Patiala-educated lawyer seriously considered a religious life when he was in his 20s .

But his karmic destiny was to become a lawyer, he says.

"Even then, I believed that I could not keep away from sadhus and swamis," he says. "Besides, I used to say that my work as a lawyer is actually meant to exhaust my karmic destiny. Perhaps one day I would turn to spirituality full time."

It is Saturday evening, and we are discussing Bharti's lawsuit against McDonald's (and another headline-making suit against Boeing Corporation).

Since the announcement of the lawsuit in a Washington state court on May 2, he has been interviewed by over 25 reporters in just about a week and has defended his action against McDonald's on a CNN show.

Harish Bharti with his wife Anoop Bharti lives with his wife Anoop and two young sons in a modest home in an upper middle class part of Seattle. The walls of his living room are filled with framed pictures of articles on him that have appeared in such publications as Seattle Times.

There are many pictures, too: One of them shows him with Gerry Spence, one of America's best-known trial lawyer who successfully defended Imelda Marcos against allegations that she had pilfered millions of dollars from Philippines and brought them into America.

Bharti, who lectures senior trial lawyers at an institute run by Spence in Wyoming, eagerly passes on some of latter's books. "To my brother," Spence has written on one book. And in another, Bharti becomes his "Dear friend."

"(Some) People may say this is a frivolous lawsuit," Bharti, who is in his mid 40s, says. He also bristles at the suggestion that he is fighting the case purely for money.

"Anybody who contemplates a class action lawsuit knows that it takes a very very long time to litigate such lawsuits and I will be spending most of my own money," he says.

Right now, he has just a handful of people who have joined him in the lawsuit. But "Even if there are thousands who will join me," he continues, "the fact of the matter is that this is a very protracted battle against a giant corporation and corporate greed."

McDonalds' sales in America came to about $20 billion two years ago.

"I have fought a lot of cases pro bono," he says, adding that he has never been afraid of going against authorities.

He talks about his successful defense of two Greenpeace activists who were charged by the Seattle authorities with public disruption for suspending themselves from ropes hanging from a bridge in an attempt to block factory trawlers.

Officials were upset that the two men had spoken to reporters.

"I did not know whether it was a joke (the charges) or a serious trampling of civil rights," Bharti says. "But I took up the case and won it."

The McDonald's case is also a fight for principles, he says. "Everything else is secondary."

"You must believe me that I am not looking for money alone," he says. "I continue to find redemption for myself," he adds.

"I believe there is room for idealism everywhere. I have taken up a lot of cases to help victims of sexual harassment - and such cases have given me immense satisfaction."

He says his action against McDonald's has received support from a number of sources. "All unsolicited," he says with a grin, offering me a copy of the best-selling book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. The book is a devastating damnation of fast food giants such as Burger King and McDonald's.

In fact, there might not have been a lawsuit against McDonald's but for the book. Its author Eric Schlosser noted in the book that before 1990, when concern about cholesterol arose, McDonald's used beef tallow to flavor its fries.

"For decades, McDonald's cooked its French fries in a mixture of about 7 percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow," he wrote. "The mix gave the fries their unique flavor - and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald's hamburger."

Then in 1990, the company publicly announced that it was changing from tallow to pure vegetable oil. However, Schlosser suggested that the company could still be using beef tallow to flavor its fries while listing the ingredient as "natural flavor."

The book, which has been a coast-to-coast bestseller, piqued the interest of several Hindus who got in touch with Bharti.

"Some of them must have thought if I am crazy enough to sue Boeing, I might try to take on McDonald's," he says laughing. "You bet I was serious. What I or you eat becomes part of your body, and the realization that you have been deceived into eating something you never wanted to eat adds a lot of emotional distress." He is not impressed by McDonald's statement late last week that its French fries are prepared with beef extract and its assertion that the revelation is not new.

"A jury can easily find out how ridiculous McDonald's claims are," Bharti says.

McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker said last week though it has been saying since 1990 that its fries are cooked in pure vegetable oil McDonald's never claimed its fries were appropriate for vegetarians and always told customers that their flavor comes partly from beef.

However, Riker added, it was left to the customers to ask about the flavor and its source.

"Not only did they deceive millions of people who may not want to have any beef extraction in their food for religious, ethical and health reasons," Bharti says. "Now McDonald's is suggesting that these people are at fault, that they are stupid. This adds insult to injury."

Riker also said Beef extract - not beef tallow, as the suit alleges - is the only natural flavor in McDonald's French fries.

He added that using "natural flavor" as a synonym for beef extract is within federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Riker also asserted that in India no beef extract is added to the fries. "Can I really believe them?" Bharti asks.

Bharti argues that any vegetarian or "a reasonable person" who heard that McDonald's fries are prepared in "100 percent vegetable oil" and read the list of ingredients would assume the food is suitable for vegetarians.

"The company is playing with words," he says.

"It is disgusting. They are not ready to say `we misled the public, we are sorry' and offer compensation," he adds.

He hopes Boeing Corporation will be as stubborn as McDonald's. Bharti represents 40 Asian workers who say they were denied promotions and adequate pay because of their ethnicity.

"These are immigrants who are afraid to fight because they don't know the system," Bharti told reporters when he began action against Boeing last October. "They keep their head down and keep working hard."

He notes how Boeing agreed a few months ago to a $15 million settlement for a class-action bias case involving African-American workers.

"As immigrants many of us do not realize that it is important to stand up for our rights," Bharti says. "When I came to America over 12 years ago, and began my law career as a pro bono attorney many judges snubbed me. I was warned that there was no point in appealing some cases but I stood firm. And I won."

Bharti admits that it is his pride and quick temper that make him fight. "Some times, I feel that I should not be quick with my tongue," he says. His wife, Anoop, who runs a day care center in their home, is a calming influence, he says.

"The most important thing is that she understands why I am such a fighter."

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