Since its founding in the1940s, McDonald's, the world's largest restaurant, has navigated many threats to its bottom line. Other fast food companies have imitated and sought to improve on its concept. Labor activists have decried its treatment of workers. Food and environmental activists have assailed the way it has industrialized food production. The international community has deplored McDonald's trade practices and protectionism. Animal welfare activists oppose its wholesale commodification and mistreatment of animals. And, of course, public health experts condemn its hawking of unhealthy, fattening food to children and adults.
But despite public relations risks to its people-loving, children-loving image, McDonald's has continued to please Wall Street thanks to its billion dollar advertising budget and 14,000 U.S. restaurants serving an astonishing 27 million customers a day. Still, here are a few moments the burger giant would prefer you not remember, including some that happened only a few weeks ago.
"McLibel" Campaign Wins a Moral Victory
Some of the earliest actions against McDonald's lack of corporate citizenship were conducted by activists in England, not the U.S. In 1986, Helen Steel, Dave Morris and other activists distributed a 6-sided fact sheet called "What's Wrong With McDonald's? - Everything they don't want you to know."
It turns out there was little "right" with the corporation, according to the activists who charged that McDonald's exploits children with its advertising, promotes an unhealthy diet, exploits its staff, damages the environment and abuses animals. While McDonald's today is viewed as affable and gregarious, its response to the criticism in the 1980s was to hire spies to infiltrate the activists' groups and to sue them for libel.
What proceeded was a two-year-long trial, the longest trial in English history, in which the penniless activists played "David" to McDonald's "Goliath." In June 1997, Justice Roger Bell technically found against the activists and for McDonald's, ruling they had not proved that McDonald's destroys rainforests, contributes to Third World starvation or that its products cause heart disease and cancer and its working conditions are abysmal. But, said the judge, the defendants had shown that McDonald's "exploits children" with its advertising, falsely advertises food as nutritious and risks the health of long-term regular customers. The defendants had also shown, said Bell, that McDonald's, was "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals used in its products, "strongly antipathetic" to unions and paid low wages to workers. Actions by some of the original McLibel groups continue.