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Getting McSued by McDonald's for McLibel -- and McWinning Because You Are McRight!


Towards the end of the 80s, a small organization named London Greenpeace (not affiliated with the environmental group) began distributing a flyer entitled "What's Wrong with McDonald's? -- Everything they don't want you to know." The group distributed this flyer as they walked by McDonald's stores in England. The flyer claimed, among other things, that the burger giant was responsible for damaging the environment, exploiting kids, and treating its workers unfairly. Most importantly, the flyer stated that the food McDonald's served was linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. This small group also organized the International Day of Action against McDonald's; which has been observed every October 16th since 1985. This protest went on for five years until 1990 when McDonald's brought libel charges against five members of the group. Libel is the act of writing or printing something that degrades or defames someone's, or in this case, something's character. McDonald's, with its signature golden arches, 28,000 stores in 120 countries, and the home of Ronald McDonald, was suing five people for handing out a flyer. Faced with the prospect of having to hire lawyers and fight a powerful multinational corporation, three of the five reluctantly apologized. Two of them however; Helen Steel, and David Morris; refused; vowing instead to see the trial through to the end. The two of them would have to defend themselves because they could not afford a lawyer. Needless to say, McDonald's was able to hire one of the best attorneys in London to lead their legal team. Even so, the eventual trial, dubbed the McLibel trial, nearly brought the billion-dollar corporation to its knees.

In England, the libel laws differ greatly than those in the United States. Here, the person who claims to have been harmed by the statements must prove both that the statements are false, and that they caused significant damage. It is part of the free speech protection afforded by our constitution that protects the rights of the innocent, until they are proven guilty. In England however, it is the duty of the person making the claims to prove that those statements are true beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, they must show this using primary sources, such as eyewitness accounts, or documentary proof. They cannot rely on sources like medical journals or common sense. For instance, in order to prove their claim that McDonald's used beef from cattle grazing on rainforest land, the defendants would have to produce a person who had seen the land when it was still rainforest, as well as when it was being used for cattle. McDonald's scored an early victory by convincing the judge not to have a jury trial. This favored the company because the David versus Goliath aspect of the case might have swayed normal people. Namely, that the defendants had no lawyers, while McDonald's was paying their top lawyer about $3000 a day. McDonald's was able to argue that the scientific facts of the case would be too complex for ordinary citizens. The irony of course is that Morris and Steel were both ordinary citizens themselves. Helen Steel was a 21-year old gardener, while David Morris was a former post office worker. Despite the tremendous odds, Morris and Steel pursued the case, hoping to generate sympathy in the media for their cause. The McLibel trial went on for just under three years and was to become the longest trial in English history. Even though McDonald's spent millions of dollars, its image and reputation suffered as many of the claims on the flyer were revealed in court to be true.

At least they don't cut the beaks off the chickens like Burger King does!

For instance using McDonald's own internal documents, Steel and Morris were able to prove that McDonald's targets children with their advertising. Knowing that parents will often give in to their child's demands and eat where their kids want them to, they essentially use Ronald McDonald as bait. Happy meals with toys, and other kid-centered things are other manifestations of this strategy. This revelation, however, was just the tip of the iceberg. The McLibel Two, as Morris and Steel were known, were able to have McDonald's own scientific expert verify their claim that McDonald's food could indeed lead to heart disease. The expert said it would be reasonable to say that a diet high in fat, sugar and salt; and low in fiber and vitamins; leads to diseases of the heart and other cancers. This was a damaging blow but there was more.

During their investigation of London Greenpeace, McDonald's had hired private investigators to infiltrate the group. At the trial, one of these spies testified for the defense, saying that in her opinion she didn't really think that London Greenpeace was doing anything wrong. In addition, other spies took part in distributing the flyers in their attempts to integrate themselves with the group. Morris and Steel cited this as being tantamount to McDonald's sanctioning their actions. After all, the spies were working for McDonald's weren't they? The best event in the trial was McDonald's attempt to defend the nutritional value of their food. The vice president went so far as to say that because Coke has water, it is therefore nutritious. There were many more notable and embarrassing events that occurred, to find out more check out the McSpotlight web site. This is the official site that was developed midway during the trial and has testimony, additional links, and other interesting references.

In the end, and after three years, the judge ruled that Morris and Steel had not adequately proved all of their allegations against the burger giant. Most notably they were unable to show the extent to which McDonald's pushed third world farmers off their land, abused their own worker's rights, or damaged the environment. However, the judge did find that some of the statements in the flyer were accurate. The judge cited McDonald's cruel treatment of animals, which included keeping laying hens in small cages their entire lives, and the exploitation of children through their advertisements. Morris and Steel were therefore only faced to pay half of the damages that McDonald's had asked for, but were barred from distributing the leaflets. The Mclibel Two however, declined to pay them anything and said they would continue to pass out flyers. Fearing the fallout that would result in the media, McDonald's did not attempt to make them pay, nor have they pushed for the injunction against them. McDonald's claims that they were only seeking the truth, for instance, that they exploit children. Even though the judge did not totally exonerate them, the fact that neither Morris nor Steel faced any charges or ever had to pay any fines seems to be its own verdict. Plus the information they uncovered certainly made them victorious in the court of public opinion

What does this mean for you? What can you do to show your dislike for McDonald's horrible practices? To begin with, you can stop eating at McDonald's -- and all other fast-food chains. Just don't support them.

Change your eating habits. Think about this: you are young and feel good about your health. Wanna keep it that way? Don't eat foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt; and low in fiber and vitamins. Check out the good and the bad fast foods.

Keep your heart healthy. Do you want a healthy heart? Of course you do! Why? So you can live to be 116-years old. Medical science is making leaps and bounds towards halting aging and curing diseases like cancer. This means that the more time you can give science to come up with great new ways to keep you alive AND strong and young feeling, the better chance you have of seeing your 116th birthday. If you are 16 now, that's the year 2100. NASA is expecting to have commercial shuttle flights in 2040. Can you imagine what they will offer in 2100? How would you like a house on the Moon? To get there you need to be healthy. Your heart is a very important part of staying healthy. Keep it happy and you might just be swimming in your pool with a view of Earth.

Also, think about the Internet and what it will be like in 100 years. If you are having difficulty picturing how far it will advance, think about Ford's first car, the Quadricycle. It was basically just a motor on wheels. Now think about the 2004 hybrid Ford Escape. There's a big difference. The Internet in 100 years is going to be amazing. Don't you want to be there?

If longevity isn't your goal, but halting the spread of these awful companies like McDonald's is more up your alley, think about creating your own flier detailing the inhumane practice that both employ. List the major points presented in this dispatch:

  • uses land for its cattle that was once rainforest.
  • exploits kids through advertising
  • treats its workers unfairly
  • serves food that causes heart disease, cancer and diabetes
  • treats animals in a cruel fashion

Here are some good alternatives to fast food:
Alternative fast food from Channel 3000.com

Alternative fast food from the University of Minnesota

Online Health Ed

Above all, make your own decisions about what you put into your body and why. Go ahead and challenge yourself and others to Make A Difference.


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Sweet sugar's evil, mean streak
Teddy - It's hard to say good-bye, but farewell it is
Kevin - Thanks for the memories!
Rebecca - Billy-clubs and bayonets: this ain't no May Day parade
Kevin - The men known as Mollie Maguire
Team - Labor Day: More than just the non-official end of summer