The Big Mac

A million Britons will eat at McDonald's today. So why, asks Paul Vallely, has the burger chain become the focus of so much middle-class distaste?

The Independent, June 10, 1995

What is it about McDonald's? On one hand, it is the most popular fast-food outlet in the world. The Big Mac is now so ubiquitous that it has been adopted as the international measure of purchasing power (it takes 11 hours' toil to buy one in Lagos but only 14 minutes in Chicago, according to the compilers of the Big Mac Index, the Union Bank of Switzerland). It is creating jobs and working with community projects across the globe and hauling in record profits. Its shares are the best-performing consumer stock on Wall Street and McDonald's has, in effect, replaced General Motors as the bellwether of how America fares.

On the other hand, it is the focus of outraged protest. Residents' associations sign mass petitions at its advent. Environmentalists gathered to denounce it en masse from New Zealand to Finland two months ago to mark the chain's 40th birthday. Last year, there was a mass demonstration of green activists, "healthists" and "animalists" outside 3,000 McDonald's throughout the US, Canada and Mexico. Earlier this year 400 rioting youths ransacked McDonald's in Copenhagen and set its furniture alight in the street.

Why the vehemence? There is more to all this than the politics of snobbery or a global epidemic of nimbyism. The chattering classes may affect tones which hint at sacrilege when they report on how Big Macs will soon be available in St Mark's Square in Venice. But they are willing to be dragged by their precocious offspring to the hamburger joint on Saturday lunchtimes to join the 1.2 million Britons (and 28 million global citizens) who eat at McDonald's every day. Today one in every 17 meals eaten out is gobbled there, though finding a consenting adult who will admit to it is rather like trying to find one who voted Tory at the last election.

This month sees the first anniversary of a trial which has been quietly rumbling on at the Royal Courts of Justice in which McDonald's US and McDonald's UK are suing two unemployed environmentalists, Dave Morris and Helen Steel. Five years ago, Morris and Steel distributed anti-McDonald's leaflets outside one of the company's restaurants.

The substance of the disagreement was succinctly put in one newspaper at the end of the first day, quoting Richard Rampton, the firm's £2,000- plus a day QC: "Mr Rampton said it was completely untrue that McDonald's was involved in 'economic imperialism' or in 'wrecking the planet' by destroying rainforests to provide packaging materials and create grazing for beef cattle. The company has not seduced children into eating poisonous food and was not responsible for the torture and barbaric deaths of animals to provide meat. Nor had it paid low wages, got rid of pro-union workers or exploited disadvantaged groups."

The trial was expected to run for four months at a cost of £1m when it began; some now predict it could last a full 18 months. The defendants have filed a counter-suit, claiming McDonald's libelled them in responding. The " McLibel Two", who are acting without lawyers as there is no legal aid for libel, have managed to provoke a number of admissions in court from McDonald's staff which - even if they eventually win - have already proved rather embarrassing.

The court has heard of matters at variance with McPR promises. There were shipments of beef from Brazil in 1983, contrary to pledges about not taking meat from places where rainforests are threatened. There was the recycling scheme in its Nottingham eateries where customers were asked to separate rubbish into different bins, for "recycling into such things as plant pots, coat-hangers and insulation material for use in homes, even fillings for duvets"; it turned out it wasn't recycled, just dumped. McDonald's replied that its posters merely said rubbish was to be separated "with the aim of" recycling; it was simply an exercise to see if customers were prepared to co-operate.

A McDonald's vice-president, when asked what "nutritious" meant, replied "food that contains nutrients" and then conceded that almost all food was nutritious by that definition. Next, McDonald's contended that its food was OK as part of a balanced diet, to which one expert for the defendants retorted: "You could eat a roll of Sellotape as part of a balanced diet". Yet another McDonald's witness defined junk food as "whatever a person doesn't like" - in his case semolina. The McQC swiftly intervened to say that his clients were not objecting to their provender being described as junk food.

There were uncomfortable extracts, too, read from the corporation's confidential Operations Manual on how much of its $ 1.4bn worldwide budget (£35m in the UK) was targeted at the young. "Children are often the key decision- makers concerning where a family goes to eat," it said. And, of its chief PR strategy, the clown Ronald McDonald, it said: "Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection. This means you should do everything you can to appeal to children's love for Ronald and McDonald's." Other witnesses claimed this was manipulation.

Then there was the McMarketing manager who said: "It is our objective to dominate the communications area . . . because we are competing for a share of the customer's mind." And the president of McDonald's in Japan who, the court heard, had said: "The reason that Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2000 years. If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white, and our hair blonde."

Whether all of this adds up to justification for the critical leaflet, we shall have to wait for the judge to decide. Mike Love, director of communications for McDonald's, and a former constituency agent for Margaret Thatcher, says that he does not think it appropriate to comment until after that judgment. But whatever the judge rules will probably not explain what it is about McDonald's that provokes such vitriol, when much of what is said about them could be said about many multinational operations.

Certainly that appears to be the view of Richard Adams of the pressure group New Consumer which has spent years subjecting such bodies to critical scrutiny. Its book, Shopping for a Better World, said in 1991: "McDonald's has frequently been the focus of generalised criticisms of the fast-food industry as a whole. Poor disclosure makes a clear evaluation of its UK operations difficult." But following publication the firm opened its books to him. "They're not so bad," he says now. "In terms of employee relations and conditions and food standards, they're pretty reasonable." There is he says, the question of "cultural imperialism".

There are now 15,000 McDonald's in 80 different countries. They are in high streets, airports, service stations, hospitals and supermarkets. They are developing on the edge of towns, on trunk roads, cruise ships and on trains in Switzerland and Germany. Everywhere - cosmetic details aside - they are the same.

In 1991, two Harvard professors predicted its strength - a standardised production-line approach which emphasises technology, machines and system, and seeks to minimise the role of people - would become its weakness. Its unrewarding jobs, low wages and meagre training would attract mediocre recruits, suffer high rates of staff turnover, and undermine customer service quality.

It has not happened. The post-Fordist notion that standardisation and volume are giving way to diversity and quality and that companies must become more flexible as they internationalise seems to have passed McDonald's by. Its flexibility has largely consisted in adding on McSpaghetti noodles in the Philippines, teriyaki burgers in Japan, McLaks salmon rolls in Norway and allowing staff to drop the have-a-nice-day image after a survey suggested that people felt it was robotic. The Fordist production of hamburgers has continued. "The standardisation is a key part of its success. It's about brand recognition and quality assurance," said one Wall Street analyst. McDonald's is listed on the stock exchanges in New York, Frankfurt, Paris and Tokyo but not London. "It has had very strong growth over the past five years and the fast-food market is still a growth area."

Indeed McDonald's, like so many US retailers, has to look abroad because at home the market is saturated. "Sales have been pretty sluggish in the States in recent years," said another analyst. "But growth worldwide has averaged around 17 per cent a year for the past five years." After-tax profits in the UK have more than trebled between 1992 and 1994 to £26.9m. Profits from Canada, Germany, Britain, France, Australia and Japan were crucial in the worldwide £1.2bn profit last year.

Now moves are afoot to offer more of the same to Italy, China (600 outlets planned by 2003), India, and central and eastern Europe (500 planned by the end of the decade). "The expansion plans seem entirely realistic," says one New York market analyst.

With the plans to double the number of outlets in the UK in the next 10 years will come 30,000 extra jobs. Free marketeers like the employment secretary Michael Portillo are enthusiasts for the formula: profits, jobs and flexible labour practices. Of the present 33,070 in the UK workforce, 64 per cent are aged between 16 and 20, only 8.9 per cent are over 30 and more than half work fewer than 20 hours a week, at rates of £3.96 an hour in London and £3.72 in the North. Opponents of Planet Portillo talk of McJobs - a byword for what one commentator called a "low-wage business offering dreary jobs to a shiftless army of unskilled workers".

McDonald's points out that 495 people, including 164 graduates entered its trainee management scheme last year, making it one of the largest employees of graduates in the UK. But it will not be enough to abate the criticism. Nor will its community projects and the £1.1m it raised last year for children's causes. Nor will nutrition statements like "Since 1993 our fries have been cooked in 100 per cent vegetable oil" or "There used to be 4.5 per cent lard in buns but now it is 3 per cent vegetable oil".

For McDonald's has become a symbol of the modern globalised economy and of the cheap lowest-common denominator culture it fosters - a system which we all use and yet in which, it seems, we all feel entrapped. McDonald's is an icon for our times and much of the schizophrenia which we have towards the world is heaped upon it. That is the irony of this case for the burgermen; for they will lose even if they win.

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