Big Mac chief says his burgers are safe

A libel action has immersed the High Court into the corporate culture of McDonald's

The Independent, July 1, 1994

THE HIGH Court was deeply immersed in McDonald's corporate culture yesterday, when the hamburger chain's United Kingdom chief executive gave evidence in a libel action against two radical environmentalists.

Paul Preston, an American who has lived in Britain for 20 years, denied claims made in a 1989 anti- McDonald's leaflet that its food was unhealthy and unsafe, its workers exploited and discouraged from joining trade unions and that the beef used in its hamburgers contributed to Third World hunger and rainforest destruction.

Mr Preston told Mr Justice Bell that he, his wife and two teenage daughters frequently ate at McDonald's and denied that the food from the world's largest fast food chain might cause customers heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It was made of components that "every man, woman and child" might find in their pantry or fridge.

"Beef, chicken, milk, bread, potatoes, orange juice, mineral water - I've found them in every household I've ever visited. They are the commodities on which mankind has built its diet. Taken in balance with sleep and exercise, they are perfectly safe and perfectly healthy," he said, adding that he did not know of any reasons why additives should not be used.

Mr Preston was the first of several top McDonald's executives who will give evidence in the case, which is expected to last three months and cost more than £1m.

Dave Morris and Helen Steel, who have no legal aid and are defending themselves in the case, deny writing or distributing the leaflet, but they say its contents are true or fair comment.

Mr Preston told the court he began working at a McDonald's restaurant near his home in Fairview Park, Ohio, at the age of 16. He carried on working there during university vacations. After university, he worked for McDonald's full-time, apart from a brief spell in the military, rising to run a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1974, Mr Preston and three other McDonald's managers opened the first British restaurant - in Woolwich, south-east London.

Now there are 521 restaurants in the UK serving about 500 million meals a year and employing 31,000 people, he said. Many restaurants were run by franchisees, but the corporation demanded the same high standards from them as from its own outlets with regular checks and the threat of disenfranchisement if they failed to respond.

About 90 per cent of the beef used in the UK comes from this country, with the rest coming from within the European Union. A quarter-pound beefburger contained 100 per cent beef without any additives or preservatives.

He did not know of any incidents of food poisoning involving McDonald's, barring one outbreak in Preston, Lancashire, in 1991. That was taken very seriously by the company and led to changes at local and national level.

As for cruelty to farm animals before or during slaughter "If I found that was going on, I would counsel the supplier. If that didn't work, I would terminate the supplier and he would never sell to me again," he said.

Wages paid by McDonald's were highly competitive and the chances of promotion were good. "If an individual wants to join a union, the law gives him or her that right. If a store felt it wanted to be unionised, we'd have to do it," Mr Preston said.

The case continues today.

FEW things in the world economy are as standard as a Big Mac. Identical ingredients mean that they taste the same in Peking as they do in London or New York, and so it was that Burgernomics was born, writes Will Bennett.

Every year, the Economist, a magazine not renowned for its lightness of content, publishes the Big Mac index. It is a lighthearted way of making a serious point about international currency values.

It is also recognition of the global influence of McDonald's, which now produces the Big Mac hamburger in 68 countries via 14,000 fast-food outlets.

The most recent Big Mac index was published in the Economist in April, the theory being that if there is purchasing power parity a dollar should buy the same everywhere. The cheapest Big Mac was in China, where it cost $ 1.03, while the most expensive was in Switzerland, where the price was $ 3.96. Customers paid $ 2.30 in the US, $ 2.65 in Britain, $ 3.17 in France and $ 1.66 in Russia.

The Economist concluded that the Chinese yuan was the most undervalued currency against the dollar, although it admitted that burgernomics is flawed. Different levels of farm support, tax and profit contribute to the variations. It concluded: "The Swiss franc is overvalued against the dollar by a hefty 72 per cent. On the same basis the Japanese yen is overvalued by 64 per cent, the Deutschmark by a modest 17 per cent." The pound was 15 per cent overvalued.

Nick Wiseman, a statistician with the Economist, said: "We are often asked why we don't use the price of the Economist or of prostitutes instead. The former is printed in various places and the price is not uniform while the cost of the latter may depend on local custom."

THE MARKETING is so compelling and so precisely targeted that few small children can resist the racks of balloons and free gifts. Parents refuse to take them to McDonald's at their peril, writes Will Bennett.

Yet, 20 years after the first McDonald's opened in Britain, the world's most successful fast food chain still arouses powerful mixed emotions among adults, now highlighted by the High Court action.

On the one hand, they are cheap, spotlessly clean and invariably popular places to take children. On the other, there is resentment against American cultural imperialism, a typically British dislike of anything so ruthlessly organised and successful, and claims that the chain exploits the Third World and is conditioning people to junk food.

Such claims have always drawn a vigorous response from McDonald's lawyers and it is this which has led to the libel action against the environmental campaigners Dave Morris and Helen Steel.

It is a David and Goliath contest in which McDonald's has no prospect of recovering more than nominal damages and which could cost it more than £1m in legal fees. But it wants to keep its reputation as spotless as its restaurants.

Cleanliness is a passion inherited from Ray Kroc, who in 1954 became the first franchisee appointed by Mac and Dick McDonald, and who in 1961 bought all rights from them. The staff handbook is still prefaced by the words: "Cleanliness is like a magnet drawing customers to McDonald's. " In Britain the magnet now enables the company to sell 1 million hamburgers a day.

Of McDonald's 14,000 outlets world-wide, 521 are in Britain. Their turnover in this country last year was £586m and the profit before interest was £75m.

The atmosphere is part children's playground, part worthy community project. Last year's annual report noted that "our magic clown, Ronald McDonald, helps to communicate vital messages to children on subjects like 'stranger danger', 'water safety' and 'bicycle safety' ".

But not everyone is charmed by the magic. Residents of trendy Hampstead, north London, waged a fierce but unsuccessful campaign to prevent McDonald's from opening a branch which they felt would lower the tone of the area.

The defendants in the libel action claimed in court that McDonald's has used legal threats to bully its critics and that its public face is a fraud. In the sober surroundings of the High Court, Ronald McDonald has never been more serious.

Back to Media Page