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McLibel Support Campaign
P R E S S . R E L E A S E . 06/02/03
Statement: JUNK FOOD, THE NEW TOBACCO? - McDonald's forced to admit its products are unhealthy - McLibel defendants accuse the Corporation of a fraudulent legal strategy in their own case  

In an effort to have the so called 'obesity lawsuit' dismissed, McDonald's has been forced to make highly damaging admissions about the food it sells and promotes. [Judgment 22nd January 2003 - Ashley Pelman and others vs McDonald's Corporation - US District Court, Southern District of New York].

Judge Sweet stated [page 36 of the Judgment] that the McDonald's Corporation had submitted that 'the public is well aware that hamburgers, fries and other fast food fare' contain 'high levels of cholesterol, fat, salt and sugar'. The judge said [p39] that this was true of 'fast food in general, and McDonald's products in particular'. McDonald's had submitted [p38] that the 'dangers' of over-consumption of such food 'have been well known for some time'.

The judge explained [p45-6] that McDonald's food is highly processed, often with additional unhealthy ingredients (such as fat) in comparison to equivalent products available elsewhere. McDonald's had submitted [p46] that, if that was true, 'it is a matter of common knowledge that any processing that its foods undergo serve to make them more harmful than unprocessed foods'.

JUNK FOOD IN THE SPOTLIGHT Judge Sweet, although dismissing the case, ruled that the attorney conducting the case had leave to amend and re-launch the case on various grounds that the judge himself spelt out. This case is clearly just the beginning of a series of serious legal challenges to the power of junk food corporations and their promotion techniques. Recent legal successes against tobacco giants have set a precedent.

However, the case has had an enormous effect already:

a. focussing a spotlight once more on the damaging practices of food corporations and their responsibility for manipulating the diets of millions of people, thereby increasing rates of life-threatening diseases throughout society.

b. helping to provoke a major debate: 'is junk food the new tobacco?', 'should advertising such products to children be banned?', 'should all junk food carry a health warning?' etc - questions now being raised all over the world and forcing food corporations onto the defensive.

c. forcing McDonald's to make very damaging admissions about the unhealthy nature of its food.

McDONALD'S ACCUSED OF FRAUDULENT TACTICS In the UK McLibel case (which incidentally is referred to by Judge Sweet in his Judgment) the defendants were forced by McDonald's to bring extensive scientific evidence to court to establish the very things McDonald's has now admitted. The trial judge, Justice Bell, in his Judgment in 1997 [p215] outlined that the defence had to prove that McDonald's food is high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fibre; that eating McDonald's food more than occasionally may affect your diet; that a high-fat, high-salt etc diet leads to a real risk of degenerative diseases (including heart disease and cancer); and that McDonald's food is unhealthy, and they deceive their customers by describing it as 'nutritious'.

Despite the links between such products, unhealthy diet and chronic diseases being the unequivocal view of the World Health Organisation who had just produced a major international report on this very subject, McDonald's had strenuously denied all this.

So the defendants, with no legal aid, and having been refused a jury trial on the grounds that links between diet and disease would be 'too complex' for lay members of the public to deal with, had to research academic papers, trace and call their own expert witnesses, and cross examinine McDonald's reps and expert witnesses, lasting over 60 days in court.

But now in the US case McDonald's have admitted it is all 'well-known'!

The McLibel defendants, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, therefore accuse the Corporation of having employed fraudulent legal tactics in the UK case, and also accuse the British courts of protecting the interests of corporations rather than the public interest.

The McLibel 2 are currently fighting a legal case against the U.K. Government at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Government has been asked by the ECHR to respond to the application. Helen and Dave assert that the McLibel trial breached, in particular, Article 6 [right to a fair trial] and Article 10 [right to freedom of expression] of the Human Rights Convention, and that English libel laws are therefore incompatible with the convention. The McLibel 2 are seeking 'to defend the public's right to criticise companies whose business practices affect people's lives, health and the environment'. They also seek 'an end to oppressive, unfair and archaic defamation laws and procedures' in general, and in their case in particular.

McLibel Support Campaign - London ------ ------ ------ ------ ------


McDonald's Corporation issued writs against the McLibel 2 on 20th September 1990 alleging they had been libelled in the London Greenpeace factsheet: "What's Wrong With McDonald's?". The McLibel trial began on 28th June 1994, and ended on June 19th 1997, after a trial lasting 314 days - the longest legal case of any kind in English history.

On June 19th 1997 Mr Justice Bell ruled that: - McDonald's marketing has ‘pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food (high in fat & salt etc) did not match’ - that McDonald's ‘exploit children’ with their advertising strategy, ‘using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurise their parents into going to McDonald’s’ - are ‘culpably responsible for animal cruelty’ - ‘pay low wages, helping to depress wages in the catering trade’.

McDonald’s were set a limit of 28 days to apply for costs and an injunction (their primary aims - as outlined in their original Statement of Claim), but failed to do so.

The McLibel 2 had failed to convince the judge on all issues however and so they appealed. Significantly McDonald's did not appeal over the rulings against their core business practices, later stating that the Judge was 'correct in his conclusions'. [McDonald's written submissions 5.1.99].

On March 31st 1999 the Court of Appeal added to the findings against McDonald's, after a 23-day hearing in which the McLibel 2 again represented themselves. Lord Justices Pill, May and Keane ruled:

- it was fair comment to say that McDonald's employees worldwide ‘do badly in terms of pay and conditions’ - true that ‘if one eats enough McDonald's food, one's diet may well become high in fat etc., with the very real risk of heart disease.’

But despite all these damning findings against McDonald's the Appeal Court only reduced Mr Justice Bell's original award of £60,000 pounds damages to McDonald's by £20,000.

The McLibel defendants refused to pay a penny, and in September 2000 launched an action at the European Court of Human Rights against the British Government over its unfair an oppressive libel laws.  
contact details 
McLibel Support Campaign
5 Caledonian Road, London, N1 9DX, UK.
Tel/Fax: +44 (207) 713 1269
related links  
- McDonald's: not all publicity is good publicity
- McDonald's obesity suit may be only the first nibble
- McDonald's obesity suit tossed
- Big Macs Can Make You Fat? No Kidding, a Judge Rules
- 'It's fat, fat and more fat'
- press releases & statements
- press cuttings: McDonald's
- press cuttings: McLibel
- press cuttings: Campaigns
- press cuttings: McLibel film
- press cuttings: related stuff
- The McLibel Trial
- witnesses statements, transcripts, evidence