MCDONALD'S, the biggest fast-food chain in the world, yesterday asked the High Court to stop two London environmentalists from distributing a leaflet which links the company's meals to heart disease and cancer and accuses it of despoiling the environment and exploiting the Third World.
Richard Rampton QC, for McDonald's, told Mr Justice Bell that the allegations were false, amounted to a wholesale attack on almost every aspect of the company's business, and would cause it enormous damage if people believed them. The company objected particularly to claims that a McDonald's-style diet high in saturated fat was linked to some forms of cancer, he said. "If people took this advice to heart, McDonald's would go out of business very fast," he said.
Mr Rampton was opening a libel action by the fast-food chain against Dave Morris and Helen Steel, dubbed the McLibel 2, who are alleged to have published the leaflet. The case is expected to last three months and cost more than pounds 1 million. More than 150 witnesses are expected to be called, half by Mr Morris and Ms Steel.
McDonald's had no realistic hope of damages and was unlikely to recover any costs against Mr Morris and Ms Steel, who are unemployed, Mr Rampton told Mr Justice Bell. But he said a reasoned judgment from the court in the company's favour, and an injunction preventing further dissemination of the falsehoods, "will do an immense and lasting service no matter how much money it will take to achieve".
Mr Rampton said: "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.
"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."
McDonald's fought successfully in pre-trial hearings to deny Mr Morris and Ms Steel a jury trial, on the grounds that the issues raised were too scientifically complex.
Mr Morris and Ms Steel, who are defending themselves because legal aid is not available in libel cases, were informally advised yesterday by three pupil barristers.
The court was told that the leaflet was published in 1989 by London Greenpeace, a "revolutionary and anarchistic" group in which Mr Morris and Ms Steel were "leading lights". It has no connection with Greenpeace International.
Replying to specific allegations, Mr Rampton denied the company specifically set out to exploit children by aiming most of its advertising at them. "Only a low proportion, well under 25 per cent" was aimed at children, he said.
He said McDonald's had never been responsible for poisoning or cutting down rainforest trees to enable cheap cattle grazing. Allegations that it did not allow trade unions and sacked people who tried to join them were also false, he said.
The hearing resumes tomorrow when Mr Morris and Ms Steel will outline their case.