McDonald's Gets Burnt in Attempt to Fry Activists With Libel Suit

by Laura Dilley

 It's a modern-day struggle of David and Goliath. Two unemployed
activists are defending themselves against libel charges waged by the
world’s largest hamburger chain. And what McDonald’s estimated
would be a quick trial has turned into the longest running libel trial
in United Kingdom history.
	The two unemployed activists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris,
didn't have much to lose in taking on the corporation, which
approached them with a libel suit for passing out the flier "What’s
Wrong With McDonald’s." The flier alleged that McDonald’s food
is unhealthy, that the company employs practices which are harmful to
the environment, that it exploits its workers, and that it is
responsible for the murder of millions of animals.
	But it is McDonald's that seems to be on the grill at the
moment. Much testimony damaging to the Golden Arches has been exposed
during the course of the trial, and McDonald’s appears to be
feeling the heat. And seemingly in the spirit of rooting for the
underdog, various "McLibel" support campaigns have sprung up around
the world. Alongside these are protests against McDonald’s,
including an interrupted taping of a McDonald’s commercial in a
London park where protestors shouted down Ronald as he read his lines,
and the ransacking of a Copenhagen store by 400 youths in March, where
furniture was set afire.
	Indeed, it does appear that the McDonald's reputation is being
singed by the turns the trial has taken. Dave Steel, an unemployed
postal worker, said he believes McDonald’s chose to pursue the case
in the U.K., though activists in other countries had published similar
things, because of the U.K. libel laws. In the U.K. the burden of
proof rests with the defendants in a libel suit. In contrast,
U.S. libel laws require that the party that brings about the libel
charges prove them to be untrue. Additionally, McDonald’s top-notch
libel lawyers managed to convince the court that the trial should run
without a jury, since the case would supposedly involve points too
scientific for the average person to grasp. The penniless, lawyer-less
pair were left to defend themselves.
	In light of McDonald's initial advantage, some more recent
tactics by the now reeling McDonald’s have seemed like downright
dirty pool. For instance, McDonald’s made arrangements mid-trial to
have a $1000/day firm make transcripts of the courtroom proceedings,
but refused to supply the transcripts to the defendants unless they
paid. This put a huge financial strain on the defendants and their
supporters.
	Interestingly, support has come in part through the
Internet. There is an electronic mailing list for those who wish to
follow the trial, and a World Wide Web page which can be accessed at
'http://www.interlog.com/eye/Misc/McLibel.'
	The stream of well-known experts on nutrition, public health,
and the environment which the defendants and their supporters have
brought in is testimony to their efforts. Potentially damaging
testimony to McDonald's has come forth in the trial.

Nutrition and Health

	The leaflet which Steel and Morris circulated alleges that
McDonald's food is unhealthy. On the stand, David Green, senior
vice-president of marketing for McDonald’s in the U.S., stated to
the contrary that McDonald’s food is both "nutritious" and
“healthy.” According to Green, the company’s definition of
“nutritious” is “provides nutrients and can be a part of a
healthy balanced diet.” Green admitted that, under this definition,
Coca-Cola qualifies as nutritious.
	"[Coca-Cola is] providing water, and I think that is part of a
balanced diet," Green said.
	At another point in the trial, McDonald's expert on cancer,
Dr. Sydney Arnott, was asked by the defendants his opinion of the
following statement: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products, and
salt and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer of
the breast and bowel and heart disease."
	"If it is being directed to the public," Arnott said, “then
I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say.”
	The statement read by the defendants was an excerpt from the
London Greenpeace fact sheet, which had been characterized by
McDonald's lawyers in pre-trial hearings as the central and most
defamatory allegation in the suit.
	Other evidence has come forth that McDonald's is involved in a
"strategy of subversion" by trying to alter the dietary preferences of
entire nations, often for the worse. The evidence comes from a 1987
book authorized by McDonald’s called Behind the Arches. The book
mentions at one point the “fundamental challenge of establishing
beef as a common food” in Japan. President of McDonald’s Japan,
Den Fujita said, “The reason Japanese people are so short and have
yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for
2,000 years...If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a
thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white and our
hair blond.”

Effects of Packaging on the Environment 

	It has come out in the trial that McDonald's distributed for
several years what they termed "McFact" cards detailing a recycling
program that would supposedly use waste from Nottingham, England
stores to make such items as plant pots and coat hangers. Instead,
according to Ed Oakley, chief purchasing officer for McDonald’s
U.K., none of the waste was recycled-it all went into landfills.
	Several other witnesses have testified that, since the opening
of local McDonald's stores, neighborhood litter problems have greatly
increased.

Destruction of Rainforests

	Another of McDonald's contentions over the leaflet hasn’t
seemed to curry much favor. McDonald’s claimed that they do not use
beef from cattle reared on recently deforested land. However, Director
of Global Purchasing for the McDonald’s Corporation, Ray Cesca,
stated that when it opened Costa Rican stores in 1970, beef from
cattle raised on ex-rainforest land was used. Grazing cattle on
deforested land prevents the regeneration of forests.
	In yet another twist of events that has worked to the
advantage of the defendants, internal McDonald's documents were
mistakenly released to the court. It was revealed that the chairman of
the sole company that supplies U.K. hamburgers, David Walker, admitted
to the direct import of consignments of Brazilian beef. This beef is
known to be raised on land cleared of Amazon rainforests for the
express purpose of raising cattle.

Employees and Trade Unions

	McDonald's disputes the allegations that employees are
low-paid. However, Sid Nicholson, McDonald’s U.K. vice president,
admitted that employees are paid consistently either exactly the same
as the minimum rates of pay set by the Wages Council or just a few
pence over them. Also, crew aged 21 and over can not legally be paid
any less under the current law. McDonald’s also admits that
employees are never paid overtime rates.
	But Nicholson held firm.
	"I do not accept that McDonald's crew are low paid," he said.
	Nicholson also claimed that the company was not at all
anti-union, but under questioning he admitted that any McDonald's
workers interested in union membership "would not be allowed to
collect subscriptions...put up notices...pass out any leaflets...to
organize a meeting for staff to discuss conditions at the store on the
premises...or to inform the union about conditions inside the stores."
	Also introduced as evidence was an internal report on store
safety, circulated after the death of McDonald's worker Mark Hopkins
by electrocution in 1992. Hopkins had touched a faulty "fat filtering
unit" in the wash-up area of one store. The report concluded that
“safety is not seen as being important at the store level.”

The Future

	The trial is expected to continue through at least December,
1995. And so the world watches and waits to see if Helen Steel and
Dave Morris - or the "McLibel Two", as they're now known in the
U.K.-will end up slaying the mighty McDonald’s with their leaflets
as ammo. Good guys do win, sometimes. 

[thistle homepage] [Volume 9] [9.10 - contents]