The McDonald's fast food chain today asked a High Court judge to put an end to a long-running campaign by environmentalists who accused it of poisoning its customers, exploiting Third World countries and employing cheap labour. A leaflet distributed four years ago contained a "wholesale attack on almost every aspect of McDonald's business", said Richard Rampton QC. It was "completely false in every material respect", he told Mr Justice Bell at the start of a libel action expected to run for up to four months. Yet London-based green campaigners Dave Morris and Helen Steel had published as recently as yesterday material repeating the allegations. McDonald's, said Mr Rampton, was seeking to protect its reputation for "uniform excellence" in the quality of its products; the well-being of its customers; the welfare of employees - including equal opportunities for women and ethnic minorities - and respect for communities and the environment. Mr Rampton was explaining why the world's biggest food service organisation, with 14,000 restaurants in 70 countries and an annual turnover of 23.5 billion US dollars, was pressing ahead with its court action. Mr Morris, 39, and Ms Steel, 28, who claim their allegations are justified, are "unwaged" and conducting their own defence because they cannot afford lawyers. Legal aid is unavailable in libel actions.
McDonald's have no prospect of recovering more than nominal damages against them or the massive legal costs, which could run to more than £1 million. But Mr Rampton made it clear that the main purpose of the action was to secure an injunction banning the pair from repeating their allegations. The case, involving more than 150 witnesses and a mountain of documents, is being heard without a jury because the courts have ruled that the issues require careful and prolonged examination of a mass of complex scientific evidence culminating in a reasoned judgment from a judge rather than a simple jury verdict.
Mr Rampton said the dispute over the "malicious" leaflet, entitled What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know. It was not about freedom of speech because the freedom laws of this country did not extend to the dissemination of falsehoods about other people. "There may well be people who don't like McDonald's food, either because it is made from meat or because they don't like the taste, and they may wish to give expression to their views, sometimes in strong terms," he said. " McDonald's may not like it, but would not try to stop honest criticism. What they will always seek to prevent is the dissemination of false factual information about the company, its business and its products." The allegations made by the defendants - members of the London Greenpeace group, which has no connection with Greenpeace International - were false because McDonald's would not tolerate any departure from the high standards it had set for itself. "Any serious deviation in quality of food or service or treatment of employees is quickly and severely dealt with," said Mr Rampton. Replying to specific allegations in the leaflet, Mr Rampton said it was completely untrue that McDonald's:
Mr Rampton said there was a pressing need for it to be recognised in the courts and the world at large that the allegations were "a tissue of falsehood". The hearing continues tomorrow when the defendants will outline their case.