A British libel trial puts McDonald's on the grill

By Daniel Zoll

San Francisco Bay Guardian; 29th January 1997

THE LONGEST TRIAL in British history came to a close last month. One might expect England's "trial of the century" to involve a royal murder, an IRA subway bombing, or some Dickensian estate battle. But this landmark courtroom drama was over something quintessentially American: the hamburger.

Known across the globe as McLibel, the David-versus-Goliath lawsuit pitted the world's largest retail food chain, the McDonald's Corporation, against two unemployed environmental activists. The two-and-a-half-year trial was described by one leading British columnist as "the best free entertainment in London."

While America was fixated on bloody gloves and white Ford Broncos, the British were learning the ugly truth about the restaurant next door.

In 1990 the U.K. division of McDonald's -- a company that spends nearly $2 billion a year on self-promotion -- sued David Morris and Helen Steel, two members of London Greenpeace, over a leaflet they handed out in front of one of the chain's London restaurants. The six-page fact sheet was titled "What's Wrong With McDonald's -- Everything They Don't Want You to Know." London Greenpeace, a small, independent collective founded in 1971, is not affiliated with Greenpeace, the international environmental group.

The pamphlet accused McDonald's of, among other things, promoting unhealthy food, exploiting workers and animals, and destroying the environment.

McDonald's had hoped to benefit from Britain's arcane libel laws, laws that so blatantly favor corporate interests that they might have been drafted by the company itself. In the United States the plaintiff in a libel suit is required to prove that the statements in question are false. In Britain the burden of proof is entirely on the defendant, who is required to back up each statement with "primary sources" such as firsthand witnesses or official documents.

You can't blame McDonald's for expecting Steel and Morris to back down in the face of its legal threats. Most of its critics have done just that. What the company didn't count on is that Steel and Morris felt they didn't have anything to lose. As it turned out, the case blew up like a grease fire in the company's face, and McDonald's found itself on trial.

A total of 180 witnesses from around the world -- including scientists, environmental experts, former employees of McDonald's, nutritionists, and others -- were lined up to provide evidence to support the allegations made in the fact sheet. The case even spawned McSpotlight , a popular Web site that serves as a clearinghouse for dirt on the company.

The judge isn't expected to make a ruling until May, but in the court of public opinion the verdict is already in. Whatever happens, the "McLibel Two" feel they have been vindicated.

"It's clear that McDonald's' efforts to suppress criticism have completely backfired," said Morris, a former postal employee, in a recent telephone interview from his London home. Morris estimates that two million more copies of the pamphlet have been passed out since the trial began.

McDonald's U.K. spokesperson Mike Love said the company is confident that the case will be decided in its favor. "Nothing has come out in the case that supports the allegations," he said.

You deserve a break today

In 1990 the company decided it simply could no longer tolerate a handful of protesters leafleting its U.K. stores. After sending seven private investigators to infiltrate London Greenpeace meetings, the company threatened Steel, Morris, and three other London Greenpeace activists with a libel lawsuit.

McDonald's had used this tactic successfully before. The legal costs of a libel suit are exorbitant, and no public legal assistance for libel trials is available in the United Kingdom. Many McDonald's critics have chosen to apologize rather than risk bankruptcy. Even such large organizations as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and major British newspapers have chosen public retractions or apologies after angering the fast-food giant.

After being advised that they wouldn't be eligible for legal aid, three of the original McLibel Five did apologize, reluctantly. But Steel and Morris stood firm. "We feel this is a matter of free speech, that people should have the right to put alternative views across and criticize multinationals," Steel, a former gardener who now works part-time in a bar, said during the trial. "Especially those [companies] who spend a fortune pushing their own propaganda."

McDonald's secured the services of Richard Rampton, one of the country's top libel lawyers. But since Steel and Morris could not afford a private lawyer, they were forced to represent themselves. According to Morris, he and Steel spent all their waking hours studying legal procedures, lining up witnesses, and plotting legal strategies.

Steel and Morris suffered another major setback when the judge denied their request for a jury. McDonald's' lawyers had convinced the judge that the link between diet and cancer was "too complex" for jurors to understand.

The trial finally began June 28, 1994. Recalling the mood in the courtroom, one of the defense witnesses, American anti-beef activist Howard Lyman, said in a recent interview that he was struck by the demeanor of the judge, who Lyman said was brazenly sympathetic to the corporation's case.

"The judge and the solicitor for McDonald's were what you might call bosom buddies," Lyman said. "The rapport between the two in the courtroom was very surprising for me."

Nevertheless, Lyman, a former cattle rancher and beef-industry lobbyist, said he made an impression on the judge when he discussed how the beef McDonald's and other fast-food chains use for their hamburgers is produced. "[The judge] and I had a rather frank conversation about the production of beef," Lyman said. "I guarantee you he didn't have a meat pie for lunch that day."

Some of the more damaging (Mc)nuggets of information from the trial have not been reported on in the mainstream U.S. media. In places where the word has gotten out, such as Europe and Australia, and on the Internet, trial coverage has sparked intense interest in and discussions of the case. Though some major media outlets in the United States reported on the trial, few seemed interested in following it or exposing the evidence that emerged from it. It wasn't as if there was a lack of media interest in McDonald's -- many news outlets covered the launch of the Arch Deluxe line of 'adult' sandwiches and the company's construction of a gargantuan Arch Deluxe Burger.

McFoot-in-mouth disease

Part of the entertainment value of the trial came from listening to the verbal contortions of McDonald's executives as they tried to deny even the most obvious, common-sense allegations made in the London Greenpeace fact sheet.

A close look at the transcripts, portions of which were posted on McSpotlight , reveals some of this doublespeak.

Unhappy meals - Early in the trial, McDonald's lawyers said the section that linked its food to disease was the most "defamatory" part of the allegedly libelous leaflet. At one point in the trial, Morris and Steel asked McDonald's' paid expert on cancer, Sydney Arnott, his opinion of the following statement:

"A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products, and salt and low in fiber,vitamins, and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease."

Arnott replied that the statement was "a very reasonable thing to say." The defense then informed the doctor that the statement was a direct quote from the London Greenpeace fact sheet -- from the exact section McDonald's had charged was most libelous.

McDonald's repeatedly tried to defend its commitment to the health of its customers, citing the company's nutrition guide as proof of this concern. "Every time you eat McDonald's, you'll eat good, nutritious food," the guide pledges. "McDonald's meal combinations can form part of your balanced diet." When asked what 'nutritious' means in its nutrition guide, David Green, senior vice president of marketing for McDonald's USA, defined it as follows: "Provides nutrients and can be part of a healthy balanced diet."

Green admitted that this definition could also apply to "a packet of sweets." When asked if he considered Coca-Cola nutritious, Green replied that as far as it is "providing water" it is "part of a balanced diet."

Sad cows - The pamphlet's charges of animal cruelty proved hard to deny. "In the slaughterhouse," the pamphlet alleged, "animals often struggle to escape. Cattle become frantic as they watch the animal before them in the killing line being prodded, beaten, electrocuted, and knifed." Company executives played up the company's animal-welfare policy, which they later admitted consists of obeying the animal-welfare laws of each country in which McDonald's operates.

Even David Walker of McKey Foods, the meat packer that supplies hamburger to McDonald's U.K., agreed that "as a result of the meat industry, the suffering of animals is inevitable."

Tears of a clown - The pamphlet charged McDonald's with specifically targeting its advertising toward children. Since surveys show that 96 percent of U.S. kids recognize Ronald McDonald (second only to Santa Claus), that is a tough charge to deny. But McDonald's U.K. president Paul Preston maintained in his testimony that Ronald does not "sell food" to children but promotes the "McDonald's experience."

The defense introduced into evidence a leaked copy of the McDonald's Operations Manual, which contradicted Preston's claim. "Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food. And so do children, because they love Ronald," the manual states. "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."

One of the defense's star witnesses was Geoffrey Guiliano, an actor who portrayed Ronald McDonald in the 1980s. Guiliano now uses his performance skills to educate kids about the evils of fast food. "I brainwashed youngsters into doing wrong," Guiliano testified at the trial. "I want to say sorry to children everywhere for selling out to concerns who make millions by murdering animals."

Rainforest destroyers - At the beginning of the trial McDonald's U.K. claimed it did not use beef from cattle reared on recently deforested rainforest land. Furthermore, it claimed to have a policy of not using beef that originated outside the European Union. Walker testified that in 1983 and 1984 McDonald's had knowingly purchased hamburgers from beef that had been imported from Brazil, a rainforest country. When asked if this was a breach of company policy, McDonald's U.K. chief purchasing officer Edward Oakley replied, "No, it was not. We still bought the hamburgers locally. We did not buy the ingredients locally."

Ray Cesca, director of global purchasing of the McDonald's Corporation, testified during the trial that when the company opened stores in Costa Rica in 1970, it used beef from cattle raised on what had been rainforest land.

To contradict McDonald's' claim that the company only used American-produced beef in the United States, the defendants showed an excerpt from the independently produced documentary Jungleburger, in which McDonald's beef suppliers in Costa Rica stated that they also supplied beef for use by McDonald's in the United States.

Trash talking - The trial also exposed one of McDonald's' recycling programs as a farce. For several years the company posted signs in its Nottingham stores urging customers to put plastic-foam packaging into separate containers; the company claimed the packaging would be recycled "into such things as plant pots and coat hangers." Under questioning, Oakley admitted that the company had dumped the packaging into landfills.

McJobs - The pamphlet condemned the fast-food company's labor practices, alleging that its wages were low and its working conditions bad, and that the restaurant prevented unionization "by getting rid of pro-union workers." More than 25 former employees testified on behalf of the defense. Sid Nicholson, McDonald's U.K. vice president, denied that McDonald's employees were poorly paid. But he did admit that wages were set either exactly at minimum wage or a few pence above it. He conceded that for employees age 21 or over, the company, as Steele put it, "couldn't actually pay any lower wages without falling foul of the law."

Nicholson denied that the company was anti-union. But under questioning he admitted that any McDonald's workers found putting up notices, passing out leaflets about unions, organizing meetings at the store for staff to discuss working conditions, or informing a union about conditions inside the stores would be guilty of "gross misconduct" and fired.

Ronald on the run

As the trial progressed, it proved more and more embarrassing to the company. In a confidential memo leaked to the defense, McDonald's Australia beseeched its parent company to "minimize any further negative publicity", "keep it at arm's length", and "contain it as a U.K. issue." Illinois-based McDonald's USA is also desperately trying to contain the case as a British matter. McDonald's spokesperson Jane Hulbert refused to comment on the trial and directed Bay Guardian inquiries to the London office. "It really is a U.K. issue," Hulbert said.

John Stauber, editor of the Madison, Wis.-based PR Watch, said that within the public-relations industry the McLibel case is widely viewed as a disaster for the fast-food company. "There are some trade-industry journals that just bring the case up constantly and ask, 'What the hell are the people at McDonald's thinking that they don't settle this thing?' "

In fact, just after the first anniversary of the trial, McDonald's did try to arrange a settlement. The company flew some members of its U.S. board of directors to London in an attempt to convince Steel and Morris to settle out of court. Morris said he and Steel set clear conditions for such a settlement: the company had to agree never again to sue any individuals or groups for making similar criticisms of McDonald's; to apologize to everyone McDonald's has sued in the past; and to pay "a substantial sum" to a mutually agreeable third party. McDonald's refused, and the trial carried on.

Love confirmed that the company had arranged a meeting with the defendants to discuss a settlement. But he denied that it was because the trial was going badly for McDonald's. The company, he said, just wanted to give the defendants another chance to apologize. "We didn't believe there was any need to be in court in the first place," he said. "We wanted to give them [another] opportunity to make that decision if that's what they wanted to do."

The trial has ended, but embarrassing revelations continue to come to light. Earlier this week, the British Observer newspaper reported that one of McDonald's spies had an affair with one of the environmental activists. The activist, Charles Brooke, discovered his lover's real identity when her name was released during the McLibel case. "These revelations will fuel criticism of the way the company used corporate muscle to squash the fringe campaigners," the Observer wrote Jan. 26.

Morris said he had hoped to have time to rest when the trial ended. No such luck. He and Steel are busy finishing a book, McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, to be published by MacMillan. Morris said he felt it was important to get the book out before spring, when the verdict is expected to be announced.

Whatever the verdict, McLibel support groups around the world, including the U.S. McLibel Support Campaign (see "How to Fight McDonald's"), are planning actions when the verdict is given.

"It is important that the campaign against McDonald's is stepped up to show them that people will not be intimidated," Morris said. "Whatever the outcome of the case, it is vital that people continue to distribute leaflets and put out information to counter the line put across by multinationals. Free speech must be defended."

Fries with that?

Just as McDonald's is as much an international icon as it is a hamburger chain, the McLibel trial represents more than an exposi of one corporation's business practices.

Every day stories in the mainstream media hype the "global economy" that promises to bring the wonders of Western culture -- such as Barbie dolls, Big Macs, and Baywatch -- to every corner of the planet. But this economic 'globalization' -- the integration of markets, trade, finance, information, and corporate ownership around the globe -- is proceeding with little thought about its consequences.

In his new book One World, Ready or Not, journalist William Greider exposes the dark side of globalization and the devastation it is wreaking around the world. Multinational corporations, he writes, are no longer guided by the national interests of their home countries but by the imperatives of the financial markets. McDonald's, Greider wrote, is at the forefront of this new world order.

"From Kuala Lumpur to Moscow, the company acts like an advance scout for the global revolution, somehow able to detect the emergence of disposable income before other firms see it," Greider wrote.

The New York Times also recognized McDonald's as a pioneer of globalization. Last month, as the McLibel trial was coming to a close, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman devoted two consecutive stories to McDonald's. He didn't mention the trial, instead congratulating the company for becoming what he calls a 'glocal' (simultaneously global and local) company.

Friedman called on other companies to emulate McDonald's' strategy of being sensitive to the unique qualities and needs of local communities (for example, by not offering beef in McDonald's restaurants in India), while still conquering as many world markets as possible. "To the extent that U.S.-origin companies are able to become multi-local, able to integrate around the globe economically without people feeling that they have been culturally assaulted, they will be successful," Friedman wrote.

The problem is, as the McLibel trial reveals, McDonald's' "glocal" image is just a sham constructed by the company's high-priced P.R. firms. Truly local businesses keep profits in the community in which they are based, use local materials, and have a stake in the local region and in their workers.

As Friedman himself reported, McDonald's is moving from local sourcing of its ingredients to global sourcing: "Already, every sesame seed on every McDonald's bun in the world comes from Mexico," Friedman wrote. "That's as good as a country discovering oil."

That is, until McDonald's decides that it can get its sesame seeds cheaper in Uruguay or Thailand. Friedman's logic is typical of the mainstream media's irresponsible, gee-whiz attitude toward globalization. What 'glocal' really means is having no roots at all. And that is what McDonald's has perfected.

How to fight McDonalds

A list of resources

FOR MORE information on McLibel, visit the McSpotlight Web site. Or contact any of the following organizations:

US McLibel Support Campaign
Box 62
Craftsbury, VT 05826-0062
(802) 586-9628

Pure Food Campaign
1660 L Street N.W., Suite 216
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 775-0074

Bay Area groups

The following groups have information on local campaigns against McDonald's and other multinationals:

Vegan Action
Box 4353
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 548-7377

Food First
398 60th St.
Oakland, CA 94618
(510) 654-4400

Global Exchange
2017 Mission, Room 303
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 255-7296

International Forum on Globalization
1555 Pacific
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 771-3394

Rainforest Action Network
450 Sansome, Suite 700
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 398 4404

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