The vast ‘M’ sign is a global symbol, which represents chain of the restaurants in all big cities of the world. The first McDonald’s restaurant was opened in 1930 by brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald in San Bernardino, California. However, its official launch into the largest fast food restaurant was not until 1940 upon its establishment into a barbecue restaurant. It did not gain popularity until 1955 when Roy Kroc joined the establishment; at that time he was a franchise agent. He finally bought the restaurant and guided it into its worldwide growth. The restaurant operates on a franchise basis, with its revenue coming from rent, royalties and fees from the franchises.
The chain of restaurant mainly sells French fries, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken, breakfast items, soft drinks and desserts among other fast foods. However, with time and due to the changes in consumer tastes and preferences, the restaurant has added salads, smoothies and other items to the menu.
The restaurant is responsible for the spreading of the American way of life in its globalization efforts. However, with such growth and domination in the food industry the restaurant has been dragged into legal battles. It has been accused of ”promoting” obesity especially in its home country, the USA, in corporate ethics and consumer responsibility.
The restaurant is a constant target for criticism for its services, especially its menu, its non-ceasing growth and business practices. In this essay, I am going to look at the most famous court battles that have plagued the food chain giant in the last two decades, and the effects the cases have had on the global image of the restaurant. Finally, how the restaurant has tried to save face after these epic battles (Schlosser, 2012).
The McLibel Trial
The trial famously known as the McDonald’s Restaurants v Morris and Steel started in 1990 and went on until 1997. The trial took around 314 days, and it is one of the longest in the English court system. So what was the basis of this legal battle, a classic David and Goliath, and why is it considered as hollow victory for the McDonald brand? (Mieth, 2007)
The history behind this defamation case can be traced way back to 1990 when anti-McDonald pamphlets were being distributed in England. The pamphlets got distributed worldwide in 27 languages (Mieth, 2007). This campaign against the food chain faced a lot of challenges, but despite this, the reputation of the world’s largest food chain was slowly declining along with the rest of food industry. In addition to the pamphlets, local activists made the establishment of food chains in key cities quite difficult for the food chain. The global campaign against the food chain has seen growth in the 21st century (Mieth, 2007).
This is evidenced by resident campaigns, anti McDonald’s protest by French farmers, efforts by the McDonald`s staff to organize together and challenge their bosses. The list is endless and creates havoc in the food chain’s marketing team.
The McLibel case is seen by lawyers as the trial of the century since its grounds cover crucial issues faced by all of us in normal life situations. Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the two defendants, were sued for defamation claims by McDonald. The restaurant is accused of investing heavily in building its global image, portraying it as a caring and green restaurant and an enjoyable place to eat. Children are deceived, by the campaigns, with the promise of toys and gimmicks which they get when eating in the respective franchise. Behind this image lies a profit-oriented restaurant whose only goal is to gain profit in any possible way, and their global expansion is aimed to spread this awful business ethics, undermining local communities (Schlosser, 2012).
What did the pamphlets contain? One area the leaflets targeted on was the idea of the restaurant promoting their food as nutritious, but in the reality it was junk food high in fat, sugars and salt and contained chemical additives, which caused ill-health (Mieth, 2007). In 1991, the restaurant was responsible for food poisoning in England, which made people suffer from kidney failure.
The restaurant was also seen to exploit their workers by paying them low wages and excluding overtime pay from their salaries. Understaffing in franchises was common, but their service had to be fast and diligent and personnel had to work for exceedingly long hours. The need for massive profits from the employees, whose job opportunities were few, was widespread, and they had to accept this exploitation. Also, accidents were common. The restaurant discourages employees from forming a union, which makes the employees controllable (Mieth, 2007).
The restaurant has extensive acres of land where it grows its crops and rears animals to be eaten in the West. This makes it negligent to the local farmers’ food requirements. In the process, the animals are intensively reared with limited fresh air and sunshine and they lack freedom of movement. As the chain promotes the consumption of meat, we have the choice whether to eat meat or not, while millions of animals have no choice (Schlosser, 2012).
The environment is also not spared: forests are being cut down to make way for the rearing of animals. McDonald’s has even admitted to using beef reared on ex-rainforest land; also the use of the local farmlands has forced communities to cut down trees in order to cater for their food. The restaurant is the world largest beef consumer; methane emitted by the cattle ultimately leads to the global warming crisis. In the Sydney 2000 Olympics, protestors accused the food-chain of massive use of refrigeration chemicals linked to the global warming phenomenon.
The two activists presented received a writ which accused them in defamation and distribution of pamphlets outside the food chain in Britain in the late 1980s. The two were part of a small environmental campaign group known as London Greenpeace, and the pamphlet was entitled as What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they do not want you to know (Mieth, 2007).
Libel laws are seen as notorious because the defendants, in this case, are guilty until proven innocent. Also, they faced paying vast potential damages and the threat to their freedom of speech. These cases are expensive to fight with the stakes in favor of the plaintiff. There is no legal aid for the defendants and the right of the jury can be denied. The two would face an uphill task if they were to defeat the plaintiff.
The defendants got legal aid, which helped to guide them in the case. Occasional pro bono advice was given by a barrister Keir Starmer. The McLibel Support Campaign was established, and it was involved in distribution of the leaflets: this ensured that they were viewed as fighters and not as passive victims. The two had to learn quickly because McDonald had employed the best lawyers in England to handle the case. Justice Bell, the judge, , who was new to libel cases, was the one who presided the case. The restaurant, through their lawyer Richard Rampton, successfully applied for the right to a jury trial to be denied. This showed that the food chain did not want to be tried by the same public it fed. This was a serious blow to the defendants (Mieth, 2007).
With the discouraging news in court, the public offered them their full support with the distribution of gaining full momentum. The trial started in June 1994 and lasted 314 court days spanning over 3 years. The food chain spent close to £10 million against £ 35,000 by the defendants which was raised through public donations.
As the court battle went on, the restaurants were forced to hand over all relevant documents in their possession. These documents exposed skeletons which the restaurant had hoped not to be found, especially those involving worker exploitation. Helen and Dave also argued that the restaurant had consented to the publication of the leaflets by a previous agreement with the main distributors of the document (Veggies Ltd). Also, McDonald’s had hired infiltrators who had admitted distributing the document.
On June 19th, 1997 the trial, in which the defendants were denied Legal Aid and jury trial, was concluded by Justice Bell. He ruled that the restaurant’s advertisements were misinforming on the food’s nutritional value. He said that customers who ate McDonald’s food several times a week were in risk of dying from heart related diseases. He further ruled that the restaurant was exploiting children in their advertising; it was also found responsible for animal cruelty and paying low wages. Despite all these facts, restaurant was awarded £ 60,000 damages on the basis that the defendants had not proven some points (Mieth, 2007).
McDonald’s did not appeal, saying that the judge was right in his conclusions; Helen and Dave, on the other hand, saw the ruling as unfavorable based on the overwhelming evidence presented.
The trial is seen by observers as the biggest corporate Public Relations disaster in history. McDonald brought the case in a bid to stifle the distribution of the pamphlets. However, the pamphlets quadrupled in their distribution after and during the trial (Mieth, 2007).
The McLibel marked a victory for the activists, with the argument that multinational corporations that should be scrutinized and criticized over their business practices which affect the lives of the public. Also, the companies should no longer be able to sue for libel over public interest issues.