Bad News for Fast Food: What’s wrong with McDonald’s?


In 1990, London Greenpeace circulated a six-page leaflet entitled "What’s Wrong With McDonald’s? Everything they don’t want you to know." The ever-vigilant fast-food merchant did what it routinely does in such instances: threaten with law suits; and four of the six activists who put out the broadsheet did what others have done when faced with the legal might of a $32 billion a year bully: they backed off. This left Helen Steel (bar worker, 31) and Dave Morris (single parent and ex-mail carrier, 43), who have between them an annual income of less than £7,500, and who decided to go ahead with distributing "What’s Wrong With McDonald’s." McDonald’s sued for libel, asking $30 billion in damages—and got much more than it bargained for. The case became the longest civil trial in British history, generating world-wide support for Steel and Morris (protests having taken place in at least 25 countries), and spawning a huge research and publicity effort that includes the famous "McSpotlight" website (www.McSpotlight.org/), visited by over 13 million people, and on which a good deal of the information to be relayed below has been laid out in 19,000 pages of testimony by over 180 witnesses.

The trial was thoroughly rigged, given British libel laws, the denial of a jury—on spurious grounds that the issues were too technical for ordinary people to evaluate—the further denial of legal assistance, and the immense imbalance in resources between the two sides. Yet the eventual judgment for McDonald’s was a piddling £60,000, which no one expects to be collected. Where Justice Bell found for the plaintiff, it was generally because Steel and Morris could not conclusively prove that charges had been overstated for rhetorical purposes, not because the charges were false—which did not have to be established according to British libel law. (In fact, the whole case could not have been brought in the U.S.) In three important areas—cruelty to animals, intrusion into the minds of children, and harsh labor practices—the judge found in the defendants’ favor.

The case has been a public relations disaster for McDonald’s. The more McDonald’s tried to do, the worse they were revealed to be. Even a rigged trial still requires some respect for truth; and the truths of this trial were able to evade customary media censoring thanks to the democratizing potentials of the Internet. As a torrent of information flowed out to erode the corporation’s carefully crafted persona, "What’s Wrong With McDonald’s," which might have reached a few hundred eyes before being swallowed in the endless flow of neglected protest literature, is now known to millions.

McDonald’s spends $1.8 billion a year on various kinds of PR and is one of the best known corporate names on earth, recently ranking first, for example, among advertised brand names to appear on prime time television in the United States. To sell an inexpensive commodity to great masses of people under conditions of brutal competition, those masses must instantly recognize one’s name and associate it with something of value. McDonald’s has been "The Official Break of the 1996 Olympic Games," has the franchise on the 1998 and 2000 Olympics locked up as well, and has signed a ten-year agreement with Walt Disney enterprises to become the primary global fast-food marketing partner of the mass cultural titan. For some time it has been a darling of the image-making machine. Last year, for example, the New York Times Sunday Magazine<D> waxed rhapsodic over the company’s restoration of a fading manufacturing ethos: "In this nation where manufacturing is widely regarded as having lost its way," wrote Stephen Drucker, "McDonald’s is a company manufacturing hamburgers the way Impalas once rolled off the General Motors assembly line." No less praiseworthy is the attention to the details of marketing: "Children are encouraged to make themselves at home. During the past decade, McDonald’s has built playgrounds that are often the safest, cleanest, best-maintained play areas in the community; about 40 percent of the company’s American restaurants now have them." Thanks to this and a billion dollar advertising budget, "most children recognize the Ronald McDonald character and the Golden Arches by the age of 2." It’s a regular paradise: "Only in the realm of the Golden Arches does life come with a guarantee: all will be safe, cheap, cheerful and reassuringly, impossibly familiar. This is the Disneyland of food, a land of perpetual adolescent fun, one of those happy, carefree corporate kingdoms that are invariably built on a foundation of complete, invisible control."

This is also what is meant by getting top value for one’s PR dollar. Until McLibel came along, the people at McDonald’s must have thought they lived a charmed life.

When it sued Steel and Morris, McDonald’s hoped to bury them under a mountain of conflicting facts. Instead, the excruciating detail of the testimony exacted by McLibel has been shaped into a coherent portrait of an enterprise unique in history: the first industrialization of eating. McDonald’s does not just manufacture burgers; it also must produce the desire for burgers, and all the ways of eating suitable for its purposes, which are to produce meals as cheaply as possible and sell them to as many people as possible in as little time as possible, thus compensating for a low profit margin per meal with the sheer volume of meals. "Fast food" is the shorthand for this new kind of industry. To summarize with an artificial but perhaps useful division of the swathe:

 

1. Direct effects on non-human ecosystems

 

Much of the trial centered on the effects of beef production on rainforests, and the sufferings borne by the animals slaughtered for burgers and Chicken McNuggets. As for deforestation, McDonald’s firmly claims that it only uses beef from North American and European (especially British) sources. However, things are not so simple, first, because the 330 Brazilian outlets use beef from land some of which was cleared from rainforests; second, because Brazilian as well as Costa Rican beef produced from such land has at times worked its way North; and finally and most importantly, because the global consumption of beef can only rise dramatically to the extent that McDonald’s has its way, especially with respect to the newly invaded Asian market. Rising hamburger sales can only increase the aggregate pressure toward deforestation around the world, however this may be distributed.

As the world’s largest user of beef and second largest user of chickens, McDonald’s bears major responsibility for what is wrong with the rearing and slaughter of these animals. There is an existential burden associated with killing and eating of other creatures which spiritualities have ritualized over centuries. There is the industrialization of slaughter, where the body of the animal becomes mere substance to be converted into money. This removes any reciprocity between hunter and hunted, and dissolves all spiritual meaning into cash. As the process accelerates with fast food, wanton cruelty increases as well. Thus, at least 12,000 cattle killed for McDonald’s in the UK each year are estimated to be imperfectly stunned, hence conscious until death; while egg-producing hens have to live their whole lives confined to battery cages roughly 7 by 10 inches in size, according to the company’s own witness. Apparently McDonald’s had thought of converting to free-range eggs, but desisted upon learning that the battery eggs are 50 percent cheaper.

 

2. Direct effect on human bodies

The primary issues have to do with safety and nutritional value of the food purveyed with unrelenting success by McDonald’s. The image-obsessed company really has its work cut out here given the common perception that corporations of this sort sell "junk food," a not unreasonable choice of terms in light of the fact that nutritional experts almost universally agree that the kind of food sold by McDonald’s is bad for you. With 28 grams of fat, 12.6 of which are saturated, in a Big Mac, and 22 more grams in an order of French fries, along with 52 additives being used in its various food products, it is scarcely surprising that an internal company memorandum would state that: "We can’t really address or defend nutrition. We don’t sell nutrition and people don’t come to McDonald’s for nutrition." When the company’s cancer expert, Dr. Sydney Arnott, was asked his opinion of the statement that a "diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease," he replied: "If it is being directed to the public then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say."

The effects of a McDiet on specific diseases are suggestive though arguable. But there can be no doubt that, as McDonald’s spearheads the fast food industry, its primary interest is to move more and more molecules into the collective body. What happens to these molecules once ingested is of no concern whatsoever. However, since we still live under the law of conservation of matter, and since life gets more and more sedentary for many, the mass of flesh that receives the fats and sugars of a McDiet can only increase. As the fast food industry grows, then, people have to get fatter. Obviously, McDonald’s cannot be blamed for all the fat transferred into the collective flesh. Just as obviously, it epitomizes the process, which Marion Nestle, chair of NYU’s department of nutrition and food studies, calls "a nutritionist’s nightmare…. We will continue to see the amount of fat and unsaturated fat in the American diet go up. We would expect to see the trend of increasing body weight also."

Indeed, the body weight of U.S. citizens, after holding steady in the 1960s and 1970s, starting rising in the 1980s, the same period that McDonald’s started its major expansion. Now, in the 1990s, the campaign for better nutrition which accompanied the first wave of ecological consciousness seems to have stalled. McDonald’s has abandoned its low-fat, McLean Deluxe burger, and, along with many other food outlets, pushes "super-size" portions. The overall increase in fat is centered on the poor, and especially poor people of color who used to eat austere and relatively healthy diets while the rich consumed white bread and prime rib. Today, however, the rich eat tabouli and the poor gulp down Big Macs.

Significantly, these trends are cropping up around the globe, particularly in Asia, current dynamo of the world economy. Since McDonald’s first planted its flag in Hong Kong, 25 of its top 50 outlets around the world are located there, the average weight of a local teenager has risen 13 percent, and the age of girls at menarche has dropped to 12, compared to 17 in mainland China. Hong Kong now has the second highest childhood cholesterol levels in the world, after Finland. Meanwhile, in the 25 years since McDonald’s has entered Japan, its 2000 outlets control 60 percent of the hamburger market and the per capita fat intake has tripled. With 10,000 outlets planned for Japan, and China looming ahead as the biggest market of all, no wonder Warren Buffett, the world’s greatest investor, owns $1.3 billion of McDonald’s stock.

As for food safety, sundry violations and instances of bacterial infestation were documented at the trial. We need not detail these here, and need only observe that if there is any substance to the widespread fears of mad-cow disease and its spread to humans as Jakob-Creuzfeldt syndrome (induced by the policies of the Thatcher government to deregulate the animal feed market to allow sheep offal to be fed to cows which are fed to people), then this looms as the legacy McDonald’s would like least to be reminded of.

 

3. Effects on labor

McDonald’s labor practices unhappily leave a great deal to be desired. Two dozen ex-workers testified for the defense in the McLibel suit as to poor pay and conditions, while trade unionists from around the world gave evidence about their experience of organizing in the face of McDonald’s hostility to organized labor. McDonald’s admitted having paid some UK staff under the statutory minimum and that employees "would not be allowed to carry out any overt union activity on McDonald’s premises," upon penalty of being fired.

Some findings from the testimony: A confidential company survey of UK catering and retail industry wage rates in 1992 showed that McDonald’s workers’ basic hourly rates were in the lowest 25 percent of the basic hourly rates of retail and catering employees; in 1993, crew turnover in the UK & U.S. reached as high as 120 to 150 percent; analysis of official employment records for the Bath, UK, store for 1994 showed hundreds of breaches of employment regulations and company policy each month regarding rest periods; McDonald’s UK staff were described as "always frantic" by 40 percent of customers in a company sponsored survey; and approximately 25 percent of McDonald’s full-time UK staff work overtime for no additional pay, despite this being against company policy.

These are the relatively fortunate employees. At least they do not work for the newly founded McDonald’s-Disney alliance in Vietnam, where 17-year-old women toil 9 to 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, earning as little as 6 cents an hour as they make giveaway promotional toys, many of which are Disney characters, for McDonald’s Happy Meals. (That’s right: $4.20 for a 70-hour work week.) In February, 200 workers fell ill, 25 collapsed, and 3 were hospitalized due to chemical exposure. However, their sacrifices are not entirely in vain. According to McDonald’s senior vice president, Brad Ball, the Happy Meals characters from the "101 Dalmatians" movie were the most successful in McDonald’s history. Ball adds, "As we embark on our new global alliance, we anticipate ten great years of unbeatable family fun as customers enjoy ‘the magic of Disney’ only at McDonald’s."

4. Effects on society

Increasingly, the transnational corporation has the power to force itself directly on society. Where a society is in the way of McProgress, and offers no significant market of workers or consumers, it may be swept aside. In Mato Grosso do Sul, for example, a state which supplies a substantial percentage of the beef for McDonald’s Brazilian stores, indigenous Guarani peoples who once used 40 percent of the land are now left with less than 1 percent, cattle ranching having taken over much of the remainder.

Effects are less gross but equally pervasive in the metropolis, where markets abound. In March 1997, for example, the Detroit police department joined Washington, DC, and opened 30 community police work stations inside McDonald’s outlets, to the praises of the media, who observed that this would encourage the police to eat McDonald’s food, even as they provided de facto security guard services. But the most important beachhead of the company’s operations is the mind of the child. Beginning with the McBaby label for infant-wear that one can buy in places like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s spares no effort at imprinting itself on children. The spirit is conveyed in the following passage from the corporation’s official and confidential Operations Manual: "Ronald loves McDonald’s and McDonald’s food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection. This means you should do everything you can to appeal to children’s love for Ronald and McDonald’s."

"Ronald" is actually 100-200 hired clowns who travel about the United States like Pied Pipers of fast food. (Testimony from one Geoffrey Guiliano, a Ronald McDonald clown who quit in the 1980s, stated: "I brainwashed youngsters into doing wrong. I want to say sorry to children everywhere for selling out to concerns who make millions by murdering animals.") But Ronald is only a small part of the invasion of the child-mind. Bringing the police function home, British children have been bribed with free McDonald’s hamburgers for turning in their classmates who may have engaged in vandalism. More generally, with declining public expenditures for families and communities, the effort by McDonald’s to constitute itself as the "heart of a heartless world" through warm and fuzzy advertising that shows its restaurants, with their gaudy colors and playground atmosphere, as homes away from home, becomes a significant cultural force. However, the force is the reverse of what it seems. For while the traditional religious "heart of a heartless world" provided a real foundation of community, the culture of fast food is directly implicated in the fragmentation of personal life, a process in which disruption of traditional dietary patterns plays a substantial role. The fast food industry helps induce the breakup of community even as it provides the image of community and nutrition in fragmented times—and the bigger the breakup, the more profitable for fast food.

Finally, the direct polluting of communities through litter contrasts with the company’s supercharged effort to promote itself as the nonpareil of green capitalism. McDonald’s claims to be committed to a 50 percent reduction in volume of waste along with being the largest user of recycled paper in the food service industry. It boasts of being the first company to introduce "litter patrols" into the UK, as well as a myriad of other initiatives worked out by its high-profile environmental department. Unfortunately, the demands of accumulation in a high volume, low labor-cost, and rapid turnover industry run counter to presenting a green face to the world. Professor Graham Ashworth (director-general of the Tidy Britain Group sponsored by McDonald’s) had to testify that McDonald’s was in the "top 1 or 2 percent" of all companies whose products end up as litter, it being estimated that on a given day in the UK, the company disgorges 7.9 million items as takeout that end up on the street, thereby adding roughly 50 percent to the at least 140 pounds of waste packaging a day produced by the average restaurant. When multiplied by the number of stores in the world, the in-house garbage is equivalent to over 1 billion pounds of waste every year. Asked about problems associated with the dumping of waste, a public-spirited British McDonald’s executive testified that this would be no problem at all, and that "I can see [the dumping of waste] to be a benefit, otherwise you will end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country."

 

There is more, much more, in the wonderful labyrinth that is McSpotlight (and useful bulletin boards such as McLibel, obtainable through the majordomo network)—so many trees that we might get distracted and miss seeing the forest. For it all comes down to one big thing—the industrialization of eating, which sweeps human bodies along with cows, chickens, potatoes, forests, minds and neighborhoods into its dark satanic mills, and does so, moreover, in an ever accelerating way. There’s no possibility of equilibrium, or a steady state, for McDonald’s, which, if it stands out at all from the pack of fast food purveyors, does so only in the degree to which it realizes capital’s supreme dictum: Grow or Die. This monstrous imperative spreads throughout every aspect of the industry and poisons everything.

From humble beginnings in 1955, McDonald’s grew steadily until 1980, when it had 5,213 outlets in the United States. Then, as capital moved into hyper-drive during the age of Reagan, McDonald’s took off, reaching its current level of 12,000+ domestic outlets and another 8,000+ abroad. By 1996, the pace of McDonald’s growth was impressive even by the standards of the times. The Wall Street Journal<D> put it in a headline: the company "wants to run over its competition with a Mack Truck." To this end, no fewer than 3,200 new outlets were planned for 1996, or nine a day. As reported in the Economist<D>, Michael Quinlan, McDonald’s chair, dreams of an America in which nobody is more than four minutes away (by foot or car) from a Big Mac. In an attempt to fill every possible market niche, McDonald’s is packing high streets with tiny McDonald’s Express storefront restaurants, adding McDonald’s to gas stations and building outlets in Wal Mart stores. Happy Meals for children are even being served on United Airlines flights.

This remorseless expansion has angered some franchisees, who moan that they are losing sales to newly built McDonald’s restaurants. Indeed, McDonald’s has quietly been paying compensation to franchisees who have lost out from its rapid growth.

The twin threats of competition and stagnation shadow McDonald’s like horsemen of the apocalypse. To "boost sales in a mature, slow-growing market, McDonald’s has little choice but to build more restaurants—if it passes up a prime site, rivals such as Burger King and Wendy’s will grab it," observed the Economist<D>. The go-go ruthlessness essential to the modern manager is personified by CEO Quinlin’s credo: "I’m open to any course that helps McDonald’s dominate every market." As the innovational Quinlin put it in his 1995 year-end statement, "Even as the market leader, we serve less than 1 percent of the world’s population on a given day." (Though 7 percent of the U.S., and 5 percent of Australia) According to the WSJ<D>, the expansion puts added pressure on existing McDonald’s outlets. But, as an industry analyst puts it, one has to look at the bright side, too: "there’s an opportunity here to capture [market] share from weaker performers. It’s a market-share game, and McDonald’s is taking a ‘take-no-prisoners approach’."

Today, a year later, McDonald’s is increasingly careworn though no less interested in total control. Declining sales over the past six quarters and losses of domestic market shares forced the fast-food behemoth to try and lower the price of its flagship burger, the Big Mac, from $1.90 to $.55, and to give free sandwich vouchers to any customers not served within 55 seconds. (The magic number, 55, came from the year the McDonald’s dream was launched.) This cheapening of price to loss provoking levels, combined with yet another ratcheting upward of time compression, would have accelerated the ecological damage McDonald’s does to both human and non-human worlds. But it provoked still more resistance from the ever-squeezed franchisees, who eventually forced the company to back off. The logic of this ill-fated venture was spelled out in an internal memorandum which noted that Burger-King, PepsiCo’s Taco Bell, and Wendy’s all "are moving forward with their own service initiatives," and went on to add, "We can’t allow our competition to pre-empt us, putting us in a defensive position. The first "quick service restaurant chain to demonstrate and advertise improved service will take command of the industry… " In other words, run them over with a Mack truck, take no prisoners—and don’t forget the cuddly Disney souvenirs and the heart-warming ads, either.

Because there’s no hope for equilibrium where McDonald’s is concerned, its growth is truly cancerous. "Grow or Die" means "Grow and Die" for the rest of us. We are all indebted to Helen Steel, Dave Morris, and the McSpotlight organization for inhibiting the tumor. Now their life-giving struggle spreads. Just last night, the McLibel site yielded news of anti-McDonald’s protests in Gothenburg, Sweden, Christchurch, New Zealand, Vancouver, BC, Dublin, Ireland, Leiden, Holland, and in the U.S., Santa Monica, Barre/Montpelier, Vermont, Washington, DC, Woods Hole, Massachusetts and Arlington, Virginia, the latter with arrests and national television coverage. Could radical surgery be in the offing?

That hope may be premature. But one perennial lesson is still valid: The truth can make you free—if it gets out and is heard. In McLibel, courage, wit, and the stupidity of power came together in a remarkable drama, and the Internet allowed it to be heard.

 

Adapted from a work in progress, The Enemy of Nature. References may be obtained by sending a SASE to Joel Kovel, Box 89, Willow, NY 12495.