Activists Win Some Vs. McDonald's

by Bruce Stanley

The Associated Press, 31st March 1999

LONDON (AP) -- A pair of vegetarian activists won a partial victory Wednesday in their struggle to overturn a court decision that they libeled McDonald's Corp. by accusing it of selling food that can cause heart disease. Three Court of Appeal judges ruled that Dave Morris and Helen Steel were justified in claiming that regular customers of the hamburger chain face a heightened risk of heart trouble. The judges also said it was fair to say McDonald's subjected its employees to poor working conditions and paid them badly.

The judges upheld much of the original judgment, however. They agreed with the trial judge that Morris and Steel had defamed McDonald's by claiming its products were poisonous and increased the risk of cancer and that the company contributed to starvation and deforestation in developing countries where it buys much of its beef.

``The charge about food poisoning is especially serious for companies engaged in the restaurant business, as are those about cancer risks, to the extent that those were not justified," the ruling said.

The judges reduced the amount of damages that Morris and Steel must pay to $61,300 from $92,700.

"This is a great vindication for the campaign against McDonald's," Morris said after Lord Justice Malcolm Pill announced the ruling at the Royal Courts of Justice.

``Campaigners around the world have now the backing of the British courts in their opposition to McDonald's business practices," he said. Morris, 45, and Steel, 33, were seeking to reverse a 1997 judgment that they had slandered McDonald's by distributing leaflets entitled ``What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know." The case, known widely as ``McLibel," lasted 314 days in court and was the longest trial in English history.

McDonald's Restaurants Ltd., the British division of the Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp., issued a statement saying it welcomed Wednesday's ruling for upholding key parts of the original decision.

On the central issue of nutrition, the statement said: ``McDonald's has always stressed the importance of a balanced diet and lifestyle."

Although McDonald's won the original judgment, it was embarrassed when the trial judge ruled that large parts of the leaflet were true. The judge agreed that McDonald's was responsible for animal cruelty, that it exploited children through its advertising and that it paid its workers in Britain poorly. Morris, an unemployed single parent, and Steel, a part-time bartender, conducted their own defense, while McDonald's, the largest U.S. fast-food restaurant company, is estimated to have spent $16 million on the case. The activists said they planned to appeal Wednesday's ruling to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court.

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