Since its founding in the 1940s, 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 signs that all is not well with the burger giant.
‘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.
McDonald’s Attacked Overseas
McDonald’s was arguably the first U.S. food enterprise to globalize and at its 35,000-plus global locations Big Macs and fries usually transcend individual cultures and languages. But not everywhere. In 1999, French food activist and farmer José Bové led a protest in which nine trucks, driven by other farmers, destroyed a half-built McDonald’s restaurant in Millau, France. According to the BBC, other farmers “filled a McDonald’s branch with apples [and] another with chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks.” Bové said the struggle was “between two ways of farming and eating, between real food from real farmers and industrial agriculture under corporate control” and U.S. trade protectionism. He was incarcerated for three months.
France was far from the only country echoing Bové’s complaints about unfair trade, corporate strong arm tactics and industrialization of global food. McDonald’s stores in Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Finland, the Netherlands, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and UK have all been attacked, says the BBC. In 2002, McDonald announced it was leaving Bolivia and two unnamed Middle Eastern countries and by 2009, it had also left Iceland and Jamaica. During protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 McDonald’s stores were also attacked.
Super Size Me Super Slams McD’s
What if you ate nothing but McDonald’s three times a day for a month and tried everything on the menu? What would happen to your health? It was the premise of a funny but shocking 2004 movie, Super Size Me, directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock. One of the movie’s first shockers was a group of children Spurlock interviews who do not recognize photos of U.S. presidents but do recognize Ronald McDonald. But the main shocker was the effects of an all-McDonald’s diet. After only five days of eating McDonald’s three times a day, Spurlock gained 9.5 pounds, after 12 days, 17 pounds and after 30 days, he had packed on a walloping 24.5 pounds. Since 3,500 excessive calories add one pound, Spurlock had consumer 87,5000 excessive calories in one month of eating at McDonald’s. One doctor in the movie even thinks that Spurlock is losing muscle as he gains fat.
Nor were the health effects from his McDonald’s experiment just obesity. Spurlock’s cholesterol vaults to 230, he accumulates fat in his liver and it takes him fourteen months to lose the fat he gained from one month on McDonald’s. He experiences mood swings, lack of energy and, according to his girlfriend, lack of a sex drive. Some symptoms Spurlock experiences like depression, lethargy and headaches, are only relieved by eating more McDonald’s which his doctor observes is a classic demonstration of the phenomenon of addiction. Is that why people keep going back to McDonald’s?
Two McDonald’s CEOs Die of Food-Linked Diseases
Trailers for Super Size Me were no doubt already running when Jim Cantalupo, McDonald’s chairman and CEO, died suddenly of a heart attack in April 2004 at the age of 60. He was attending a convention for international McDonald’s owners and operators in Orlando and died at his hotel, said McDonald’s. While it had been 16 years since James Garner suffered a heart attack while serving as the face of the “Real Food for Real People” beef campaign, the parallels were hard to ignore: this food is so good, it kills you.
Dick Adams, a former McDonald’s executive and franchisee consultant put the blame for Cantalupo’s death squarely on….international travel. International travel takes a toll on industry executives, resulting in numerous premature deaths, said Adams, ignoring any mention of unhealthy diets, “He was doing an extensive amount of international travel,” he said. “That’s about the most stressful thing you can do to yourself.”
Cantalupo was swiftly replaced by Charlie Bell, who, at 44, was the youngest chief executive ever named by McDonalds. But a month after he assumed the post, Bell was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away eight months later. Again, the dietary overtones could not be ignored since a high consumption of red meat is highly linked to an increased risk of colon cancer.
McCruelty to Animals
Because McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of beef and pork in the U.S and the second-largest purchaser of chicken, it perpetuates the horrors of factory farming and is also in a position to reform them. One-fourth of all breakfasts eaten in restaurants in the U.S., for example, come from McDonald’s. Following the launch of PETA’s original McCruelty campaign in 2000, “McDonald’s made some basic animal welfare improvements,” says the animal rights group but, “Since that time, the company has refused to eliminate the worst abuses that its chickens suffer, including abuses during slaughter.”
No kidding. Last year, shocking video of cruelty obtained by Mercy For Animals at the McDonald’s supplier Sparboe Egg Farms in Litchfield, Minnesota, showed the public where its Egg McMuffins are actually coming from. Hens at Sparboe, which was producing all the eggs used by McDonald’s west of the Mississippi River, were shown trapped and mangled in cage wire, some with open wounds, the dead among the living. Workers were shown grabbing, ramming and tormenting the birds and throwing young chicks in plastic bags to suffocate.
“Based upon recent information, we have informed our direct supplier, Cargill, that we are no longer accepting eggs from its supplier, Sparboe,” said McDonald’s after viewing the video. “This decision is based on McDonald’s and Cargill’s concern regarding the management of Sparboe’s facilities.” But Mercy For Animals executive director Nathan Runkle termed the decision “too little, too late.”
Runkle seems to be right. On its website, McDonald’s answer the question, “Why don’t you use cage-free eggs?” with this: “In the U.S., there is no consensus or firm scientific research on whether one type of housing system is better than the other, which leads to a lot of confusion.” Scientific research is needed to see mangled, pinned and dead birds in battery cages?
Contaminated Meat in China, Shuttered Stores in Russia
Commercial opportunities overseas have also proven to be commercial risks for McDonald’s. This summer, a Shanghai reporter captured footage of contaminated and expired meat used by its supplier, Shanghai Husi Food, a subsidiary of Illinois-based OSI group. Video of the clandestine practices went viral and the Shanghai Municipal Food and Drug Administration found 3,000 cases of contaminated beef cases already sold to the public as “fresh. “Banned items reached other countries and, in Japan, McDonald’s replaced chicken nuggets and chicken fillets with tofu and fish. McDonald’s Asian sales declined.
Just weeks later, in August, 12 Russian McDonald’s were shut down by the state consumer regulator, over alleged sanitary violations including Russia’s first iconic McDonald’s restaurant that opened in Pushkin Square. One hundred other McDonald’s were inspected for violations and Russian regulators sought to ban some McDonald’s burgers and milkshakes because of alleged food safety violations. Internationally, the regulatory pressure was viewed as capricious and political and related to the Ukraine crisis but McDonald’s global stature and profits were still affected. McDonald’s closed all of its outlets in Crimea, following Russia’s occupation and annexation of the peninsula last spring.
Losing Out With Millennials
McDonald’s owed its phenomenal success to two sociological trends in the 1950s and 1960s: car travel and the changing role of women. Car travel and the growing U.S. interstate system found people on the highway, for the first time, in need of meals. Women, for their part, were entering the workforce for the first time and found themselves in need of quick meals that did not require toiling over a hot stove all day.
This fall, McDonald’s is finding itself affected by a new sociological trend: millennials, people born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, rejecting McDonald’s in droves and threatening profits. For example, the number of people ages 19 to 21 alone in the U.S. who visit McDonald’s monthly has fallen by 12.9 percent since 2011 say published sources.
To explain the defection, business analysts cite young people’s desire for healthier foods or foods they can customize and speculate about which fast food chains are picking up McDonald’s slack. But they miss two larger demographic trends that have a lot to do with young people’s disenchantment with McDonald’s: Vegetarianism and a drop in car culture.
A full 12 percent of millennials now characterize themselves as “faithful vegetarians” according to research from the Hartman Group. Only four percent of Generation Xers are vegetarian and only 1 percent of post-World War II baby boomers. Meanwhile, the number of “per-person miles traveled” has dropped by 25 percent among those 16 to 30 since 2000 says the Federal Highway Administration. In fact, the portion of Americans aged 16 to 24 who even have a driver’s license fell to 67 percent in 2011! While certainly many McDonald’s are within walking or biking distance, their exurban locations and drive-through features connect McDonald’s strongly to car culture.
And there is another possible disconnect. People who are vegetarians and bicyclists are likely to have opinions about the treatment of workers, animals, the environment and the industrialization of food production that put McDonald’s on the bottom of their list.
Martha Rosenberg is author of the award-cited food exposé “Born With a Junk Food Deficiency,” distributed by Random House. A nationally known muckraker, she has lectured at the university and medical school level and appeared on radio and television.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.