Jewish groups get hot deal out of french fries settlement

NEW YORK — As part of a ruling against McDonald's, the fast-food giant is sinking $1 million into education about Judaism's kosher laws.

The money is part of $10 million that McDonald's must divide among a variety of plaintiffs after it was found that french fries and hash browns advertised as vegetarian in fact contained some beef flavoring.

The ruling by the Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois ended a lawsuit that cobbled together class-action suits by plaintiffs around the country.

Ultimately, $6 million was assigned to vegetarian groups, $2 million to Hindu and Sikh organizations, $1 million to children's charities and $1 million to Jewish groups.

Jeff Rubin, director of communications for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life — which will receive $300,000 in the settlement — compared the case to the Chanukah miracle.

"It's another positive thing that came out of hot oil," he said. "This will help us to promote an understanding of kashrut on college campuses around the world."

The plaintiff's lawyers determined the allocation based on the number of individuals that likely were affected by the mislabeling, said Cory Fein, a Houston lawyer who coordinated the allocation recommendations.

The following five Jewish groups were selected to divide the $1 million:

*Jewish Community Centers Association will receive $200,000 to develop curricula about kosher food laws and practices. The curricula will be distributed to JCC's throughout the country and staff will be trained to develop new educational programs.

*The Orthodox Union will receive $150,000 for education about kosher observances via meetings and publications and on its Web site. The money also will go toward educating kosher food supervisors, through national seminars, for example.

*Star-K/ will receive $300,000 to expand its Web site to offer an online, interactive course for schools, hospitals, synagogues and others on creating and maintaining a kosher kitchen. Among other services, the site will respond to questions from individuals who observe dietary laws less strictly and will provide research on the kosher status of nutritional supplements.

*CLAL-National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership will get $50,000 to host conferences on kashrut and disseminate the resulting ideas.

*Two-thirds of Hillel's allotment will go toward building and renovating kosher dining facilities on campus. The remaining amount will be used for an educational program, "You Are What You Eat: A Kashrut Conversation," and to supply students with kosher recipes.

Several other Jewish organizations supplied educational proposals for consideration, but the lawyers wanted to select only a handful of groups.

"We wanted to come up with a relatively small number of groups so that the money would have some impact at the end of the day," Fein said.

Last month, the court rejected one of the selected groups, National Ramah Commission, which was slated to receive $450,000, because a McDonald's attorney was affiliated with the Conservative camps, Fein said. The group was removed to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

In its place, the court approved Hillel. The remaining funds apportioned to Ramah were split between the JCCA, which received an extra $50,000, and Star-K and, which got an extra $100,000.

Some vegetarian charities that did not receive settlement money are discussing an appeal, which must be filed within 30 days of the ruling. If there is no appeal in that time, McDonald's will begin disbursing the money.

A McDonald's spokesman said the beef flavoring was added at the facilities of their potato suppliers, not in McDonald's restaurants.

He also denied that the products were "mislabeled," saying the company's use of the term "natural flavoring" fell within FDA guidelines. But, he added, "in isolated instances" the company "unintentionally gave vegetarian consumers inaccurate information about our fries.''