Spotlight: Professor brings the classroom to the courtroom

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,” Pizzirusso said.

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 a year.

“People who are healthy are being forced to subsidize the obese,” Banzhaf said.

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 lifestyle.

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.”

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