Closing McDonalds

In Russia six McDonalds’ restaurants have been shut down by the food safety watchdog from breaches of hygiene regulations. With all the tension between Russia and the United States this might be viewed as part of the political posturing between the two nations but Russia has 438 MacDonald’s restaurants and they seem to sell a million meals a day in Russia, so shutting down six as a temporary measure can hardly be a political act. If it were, it would make me smile.

I have always found it hard to understand why the McDonald’s offering is so popular throughout the world. Of course it is cheap, fast and modern, but I have always found the food distasteful, the logo and shop design ugly and the advertising annoying, particularly the clown and the gimmicks. But I can hardly pass a McDonalds without thinking of an English libel case (McDonald’s Corporation v Steel & Morris [1997] EWHC QB 366) in which the giant corporation sued two environmentalists for libel; the case dragged on for ten long years.

The case concerned a leaflet which was said to be defamatory. The leaflet (and I quote from the law report’s summary) “accused McDonald’s of being responsible for starvation in the Third World, of destroying vast areas of Central American rainforest, of serving unhealthy food with a very real risk of cancer of the breast or bowel and heart disease and food poisoning, of lying when it claimed to use recycled paper, of exploiting children with its advertising and marketing, of cruelty to animals, and of treating its employees badly; all the while deceiving the public and hiding its true nature behind a clean, bright image.” These are all quite serious accusations, but libels frequently achieve more publicity if litigated than if ignored, and so was the case with this libel

The Court found that like the curate’s egg the leaflet was true in a few small parts. McDonalds did exploit children with their advertising, and questions about the healthy nature of the offering might be true if people ate McDonalds more than tow or three times a week; the Judge failed to accept that there was evidence that a diet high in saturated fat and sodium was unhealthy.

The judge found that McDonalds was responsible for cruelty to animals (the use of eggs from battery hens for example).The Judge also found that McDonalds does pay low wages, depressing the wages for workers in catering in the UK.

It is hard for me to summarise the judgment in its entirety, and for those who want to look further you can find it at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/1997/366.html but when reading it you must bear in mind that the case was decided in 1997 about events that took place ten years earlier and that McDonalds may have improved some of their practices since the case was brought. The case went through an appeal, but ultimately the court’s findings that some parts of the leaflet were true and other parts lies was not changed.

No doubt if the leaflet had been written more carefully, for example using causal links to explain the relationship between fast food and the destruction of tropical forest, and being less dogmatic on the health claims and more scientifically accurate, Ms Steel and Mr Morris would have succeeded.

Closing McDonalds’ restaurants across the world may have environmental benefits if the chain is replaced by restaurants selling food with less meat, sourced from properly sustainable sources and humanely produced. Closing six McDonalds in Russia will not have an environmental impact.

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