McDonald's has big beef with vegetarian critics

Burger giant suing unemployed pair for libel in London

Beth Karlin

Rocky Mountain News, August 14, 1995

Forget two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun. Here's something truly hard to swallow.

McDonald's Corp. has consumed one year, called 56 witnesses, produced 40, 000 documents and spent an estimated $ 1.5 million to sue two jobless vegetarians for libel - without result so far.

The civil lawsuit in London's High Court recently recessed for the summer and will resume in September. With more than 120 witnesses yet to be called, this modern David-and-Goliath story, which pits Helen Steel's and Dave Morris's welfare checks against the company's $ 2.467 billion in sales, may continue until March.

Steel, 29, and Morris, 41, are accused of libeling McDonald's by producing leaflets that accused the Oak Park, Ill.-based restaurant chain of selling unhealthy food, engaging in abusive labor practices and fostering environmental destruction.

The pair - known to friends, backers and tabloid writers as "the McLibel 2" - are trying to convince Justice Rodger Bell their anti-McDonald's allegations are "fair comment" - and thus protected under British libel laws. So, amid the Gothic arches of London's High Court, lawyers and executives representing the Golden Arches of McDonald's have been arguing that Big Macs, shakes, fries and other products are not high in fat and low in fiber. Even if they were, McDonald's executives have said, that doesn't mean they're unhealthy.

"It's a lose-lose case for McDonald's," said Michael Smyth, a partner at the Clifford Chance law firm in London, which specializes in Britain's notoriously strict libel law but isn't involved in this particular case.

If McDonald's loses the case, he said, more credence will be given the leaflet's charges. If the multinational corporation wins, he added, "public relations would be negative because of the inequality of firepower."

On one side of the courtroom, McDonald's law team is led by Richard Rampton, a Queen's Counsel - or "barrister" recognized by the Law Chancellor as a senior trial lawyer, one who commands premium fees - adorned in traditional black gown and white wig. On the other side are Steel, in striped T-shirts and slacks, and Morris, wearing sandals and socks, representing themselves, for lack of funds.

McDonald's has refused Steel and Morris copies of testimony, which the burger giant pays to transcribe, unless the defendants agree to pay 350 pounds ($ 555) a day or promise never to show the material, a matter of public record, to reporters.

Rampton's team won an early battle by persuading the judge that the lawsuit should be decided by him alone, not by a jury, because the case's health and environment issues would be "too complicated" for ordinary people to consider.

Under cross-examination, though, even McDonald's executives seemed confused.

McDonald's menu items are nutritious, said Edward Oakley, senior vice president of McDonald's U.K. Ltd., because they "include nutrients."

Coca-Cola is nutritious, said David Green, U.S. senior vice president for marketing, because it contains water, "and that's a part of a balanced diet."

McDonald's cancer specialist, Dr. Sydney Arnott, agreed with a statement in the controversial pamphlet that says high-fat and low-fiber foods have been linked to cancer and heart disease.

McDonald's originally predicted the trial would last a few months. Instead, it has become the longest libel case in British history.

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