brings the classroom to the courtroom
By Robin Ngo
Media Credit: Andrew Snow/photo assistant
Law professor John Banzhaf III actively
involved his students in a multimillion dollar suit against McDonald’s over
Did you hear the rumor that McDonald's French
fries are cooked in beef flavoring, and that vegetarians have been
eating them unknowingly? That's no rumor. In fact, it's a true story of a
$13 million lawsuit started by GW Law School students.
Ever wonder if people used to smoke on airplanes? They did, and a GW law
professor was behind that, too. The same professor is currently fighting to
raise health insurance costs for obese people.
John Banzhaf III runs his legal activism class unlike most law school courses
that generally focus on past case studies and theory.
"In Banzhaf's class, we went beyond theory to actually shaping the law ourselves,"
said James Pizzirusso, a 2001 GW Law School graduate.
Students in Banzhaf's class design a legal action directed at some problem
that concerns them. Among the hundreds of public interest legal actions Banzhaf
and his students have brought include suing former Vice President Spiro T.
Agnew to return bribes he accepted; dry cleaners for charging women more than
men to launder shirts; schools for better safety standards on buses; and
birth control companies for clearer warnings on packages.
Banzhaf encourages students to explore innovative issues affecting the public.
His students said he holds back his opinion to let them think for themselves.
Two years ago, Pizzirusso, a vegan, learned through circulating information
on the internet that an advertisement for McDonald's French fries had been
misleading. The ad claims the fries are cooked in pure vegetable oil but did
not mention that they are also precooked with a beef flavoring.
Under federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines, food companies can
simply list food additives as a natural flavor without specifying what they
are. This poses a problem for strict vegetarians, because animal products
or by-products contained in foods do not always have to be identified.
Pizzirusso and five other vegetarian law students in Banzhaf's class filed
a petition with the FDA requesting that manufacturers specify what kind of
additives are found in the foods they produce. The FDA has not yet reached
a decision regarding the matter.
The students then explored new legal theories they could use to sue McDonald's.
"We thought about filing a basic consumer fraud claim in small claims court
but quickly realized that the issue was much bigger and deserved more attention,"
Seattle lawyer Harish Bharti agreed to take the case. The petition was filed
as a class action suit last year. The students asked that a court require
McDonald's to clearly advertise that the fries contain beef flavoring.
The suit received massive media attention from, among others, CNN, MSNBC
and The New York Times.
In a May 2001 Boston Globe article, McDonald's company spokesman Walk Riker
said the fries were never advertised as a vegetarian food.
Pizzirusso said he had tangible evidence disproving this statement.
"We had letters (McDonald's) had sent to vegetarian consumers where they
did tout their fries as vegetarian," he said.
McDonald's is now in the process of settling the suit by paying $12.5 million,
creating a dietary advisory panel and submitting a public apology.
About $10 million will go to various vegetarian, Hindu and kosher groups,
including the student group Vegetarian Legal Action Network formed by the
students behind the lawsuit.
"Consumers have every right to know what is in their food, whether it be
people who are concerned for vegetarian, religious or allergy reasons," Pizzirusso
said. "If companies continue to deceive and misrepresent food ingredients
to the American public, they might soon find themselves dealing with the same
PR disaster and liability with which McDonald's dealt."
Banzhaf currently teaches a class on torts in addition to legal activism.
In the past, he has taught courses on administrative law and laws for the
disabled. He is also the faculty adviser for the GW volleyball team.
Banzhaf brings to the class his own experience practicing public interest
law. He is the executive director of the Action on Smoking and Health, an
organization that represents nonsmokers' rights in legal action.
In 1965, the U.S. surgeon general first reported that smoking causes cancer.
It is estimated that taxpayers pay about $130 billion yearly for medical
care related to smoking, Banzhaf said.
"We realized it was a public health issue," Banzhaf said.
In response, he and a board of physicians, attorneys and citizens founded
ASH in 1967. Through ASH, he has helped restrict cigarette commercials from
airing on television and began the initiative to ban smoking on airplanes
and other public places.
Banzhaf is currently examining how he can use legal action as a tool against
obesity and the rising costs of related health care, estimated at $120 billion
"People who are healthy are being forced to subsidize the obese," Banzhaf
According to Muscular Development magazine, 54 percent of Americans are
considered overweight and 20 percent are clinically obese.
Although Banzhaf agrees that people have the right to eat unhealthily, he
disagrees that everyone should have to pay for the medical costs of an unhealthy
Just as health costs are higher for smokers, he proposes that obese people
pay more for health insurance in order to lighten the burden on those who
are not obese.
Banzhaf said critics view him as overzealous in his quest for justice. He
said they think it is inappropriate to file so many lawsuits, and they raise
the importance of individual responsibility.
But he sees these lawsuits as forerunners for greater causes.
"If you look back on most movements in the U.S., most started with lawsuits,"
he said. "In a way, the only effective way for a small group to take on someone
big and powerful is to go to court. A court is a great equalizer."