The McDonald's fast food chain was the "Robert Maxwell of corporations", two green campaigners today told the High Court. Dave Morris and Helen Steel, who have accused McDonald's of poisoning its customers, exploiting Third World countries and employing cheap labour, said the company was using the libel laws to censor and silence its critics. The world's biggest food service organisation threw writs at anyone who dared criticise it - no matter how small, they told Mr Justice Bell. The pair, who are "unwaged" and conducting their own defence because they cannot afford lawyers, said it was an "outrage" that the company was prepared to go to such lengths. "After Maxwell's death, it was shown that his critics were right all along. We intend to show that the public face of McDonald's is a fraud, and that the truth that lies behind their image is far from savoury," said Ms Steel. McDonald's has sued the pair for libel over a "malicious" leaflet, distributed four years, entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know". The company's QC, Richard Rampton, said it contained a "wholesale attack on almost every aspect of McDonald's business" and was "completely false in every material respect". Mr Morris, 39, and Ms Steel, 28, members of the London Greenpeace group - which has no connection with Greenpeace International - claim their allegations are justified. Mr Rampton has said that McDonald's was seeking to protect its reputation for "uniform excellence". It had no prospect of recovering more than nominal damages or the massive legal costs of the estimated four-month action, which could run to more than £1 million. The main purpose was to secure an injunction banning the pair from repeating their allegations.
Mr Rampton has said it was completely untrue that McDonald's was involved in "economic imperialism" or in "wrecking the planet" by destroying rain forests to provide packaging materials and create grazing for beef cattle. The company had not seduced children into eating poisonous food high in fat, sugar, and salt - which was linked with cancer and heart disease - and was not responsible for the torture and barbaric deaths of animals, particularly chickens and pigs, to provide meat. Nor had the company paid its staff low wages, got rid of pro-union workers, or exploited disadvantaged groups, especially women and black people. Ms Steel said the company, in refusing to disclose documents, was engaged in a "massive cover-up". McDonald's had taken so long to bring the action because, in the wake of the leaflet, it took steps to "polish up" its image. Most of the changes were "simply a gloss". Neither she nor Mr Morris were the authors or printers of the leaflet. "But we do believe it is true and that we have absolutely nothing to apologise for so we have no choice but to fight this action." The company's claim that it did not to use beef from rainforest countries was an "out-and-out lie", she said. McDonald's was suing over the assertion that it only used a tiny percentage of recycled paper in its packaging, and yet in the USA in 1989 - at the time of the alleged libel - its packaging contained only 7% recycled paper. The company's own documents supported the assertion that its food was high in fat, sugar and salt, which was linked by health education bodies with cancer, Ms Steel said. People who ate at McDonald's more than once a week, including staff who ate there nearly every day of every week, ran a "significant risk" that their health would suffer in the long term. She denied that the leaflet said a McDonald's customer was likely to get food poisoning, saying it simply said that food such as chicken and minced beef carried the greatest risk. McDonald's was, on its own admission, the world's largest user of beef and the second largest of chicken. It followed automatically that it was responsible for the murder of many millions of animals. The company's chickens and at least 40% of its pigs spent their lives in factory farms with no access to air or sunshine and no freedom of movement, Ms Steel said.
The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow.