McDonalds 'Faces Libel Kiss of Death'

James Erlichman

The Guardian, March 17, 1994

CLAIMS that McDonald's foods cause breast and bowel cancer would be "the kiss of death" to the company if they were upheld in a libel case, Richard Rampton, QC, for the fast-food chain, told the Court of Appeal yesterday.

The allegations, which link junk food diets with disease, are among several made against McDonald's in a leaflet published by London Greenpeace, a collective which pre-dates and has no connection with, the environmental group Greenpeace International.

Mr Rampton also objected to a mock McDonald's logo above the offending passage in the leaflet which read: "McDisease, McProfits, McDeadly, McHunger."

McDonald's is suing Dave Morris and Helen Steel, environmentalists from north London and members of the collective, for libel and malice, alleging that copies of the leaflet have been translated into several languages. Known as the McLibel 2, Mr Morris and Ms Steel have been fighting without barristers or substantial funds because legal aid is never available in libel cases.

At an earlier hearing McDonald's won the unusual right to dispense with a jury and to have the case, scheduled for next month, heard by a lone judge. It claimed lay jurors would be unable to understand complex scientific arguments.

Patrick Milmo, QC, argued yesterday for the restoration of the jury, having agreed to plead without fee for Mr Morris and Ms Steel in a two-day hearing, after a request from Liberty, the civil rights group.

McDonald's knows there are drawbacks in suing the two. Both are unemployed and live on state benefit. "It is no secret that the cost of these proceedings, no matter who wins them, will fall on the plaintiffs, Mr Rampton said.

He said the company needed to defend its reputation, and he read to the court what he said was the core allegation in the leaflet, that so-called junk foods like McDonald's cause cancer and other deadly diseases: "What they (McDonald's) don't make clear, is that a diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt (sodium), and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals - which describes an average McDonald's meal - is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease. This is accepted medical fact, not a cranky theory."

Mr Milmo showed the court a copy of McDonald's own nutrition leaflet which appeared to accept a link between cancer and a typical western diet. "The issue then is whether food produced at McDonald's comes under the definition as a typical western diet," he said.

McDonald's did not accept the interpretation of its leaflet, Mr Rampton said. A judge trained in assessing difficult technical material was "more likely to ensure a correct result" than a jury in such a case. "If the public should come to the conclusion as a result of this verdict that the plaintiff's food is apt to give them cancer of the bowel or breast it would be the kiss of death for the plaintiff."

Mr Milmo said a jury would have no significant difficulty understanding the case. Great emphasis should be placed on the fact that his clients, without legal representation and funds for the libel trial, were being pursued by a large multinational company. "They should be tried by the ordinary man - by the collected wisdom of the jury."

The court also heard that the leaflet alleged McDonald's had damaged rain forests, was cruel in its raising and slaughter of animals, that its beef and chicken products were associated with food poisoning, and that its employment practices were open to criticism.

Judgment on the issue of a jury trial was reserved and is expected to be given next week.

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