What's in the Meat?
excerpted from the book
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser
Perennial Books, 2002, paper
E. coli 0157:H7 is a mutated version of a bacterium found abundantly
in the human digestive system. Most E. coli bacteria help us digest
food, synthesize vitamins, and guard against dangerous organisms.
E. coli 0157:H7, on the other hand, can release a powerful toxin-
called a "verotoxin" or a "Shiga toxin"-that
attacks the lining of the intestine. Some people who are infected
with E. coli 0157:H7 do not become ill. Others suffer mild diarrhea.
In most cases, severe abdominal cramps are followed by watery,
then bloody, diarrhea that subsides within a week or so. Sometimes
the diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting and a low-grade fever.
In about 4 percent of reported E. coli
0157:H7 cases, the Shiga toxins enter the bloodstream, causing
hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure,
anemia, internal bleeding, and the destruction of vital organs.
The Shiga toxins can cause seizures, neurological damage, and
strokes. About 5 percent of the children who develop HUS are killed
by it. Those who survive are often left with permanent disabilities,
such as blindness or brain damage.
Children under the age of five, the elderly,
and people with impaired immune systems are the most likely to
suffer from illnesses caused by E. coli 0157:H7. The pathogen
is now the leading cause of kidney failure among children in the
Antibiotics have proven ineffective in treating illnesses caused
by E. coli 0157:H7. Indeed the use of antibiotics may make such
illnesses worse by killing off the pathogen and prompting a sudden
release of its Shiga toxins. At the moment, little can be done
for people with life-threatening E. coli 0157:H7 infections, aside
from giving them fluids, blood transfusions, and dialysis.
Efforts to eradicate E. coli 0157:H7 have
been complicated by the fact that it is an extraordinarily hearty
microbe that is easy to transmit. E. coli 0157:H7 is resistant
to acid, salt, and chlorine. It can live in fresh water or seawater.
It can live on kitchen countertops for days and in moist environments
for weeks. It can withstand freezing. It can survive heat up to
160 degrees Fahrenheit. To be infected by most foodborne pathogens,
such as Salmonella, you have to consume a fairly large dose-at
least a million organisms. An infection with E. coli 0157:H7 can
be caused by as few as five organisms. A tiny uncooked particle
of hamburger meat can contain enough of the pathogen to kill you.
The heartiness and minute infectious dose
of E. coli 0157:H7 allow the pathogen to be spread in many ways.
People have been infected by drinking contaminated water, by swimming
in a contaminated lake, by playing at a contaminated water park,
by crawling on a contaminated carpet. The most common cause of
foodborne outbreaks has been the consumption of undercooked ground
beef. But E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks have also been caused by contaminated
bean sprouts, salad greens, cantaloupe, salami, raw milk, and
unpasteurized apple cider. All of those foods most likely had
come in contact with cattle manure, though the pathogen may also
be spread by the feces of deer, dogs, horses, and flies.
Person-to-person transmission has been
responsible for a significant proportion of E. coli 0157:H7 illnesses.
Roughly 10 percent of the people sickened during the Jack in the
Box outbreak did not eat a contaminated burger, but were infected
by someone who did. E. coli 0157:H7 is shed in the stool, and
people infected with the bug, even those showing no outward sign
of illness, can easily spread it through poor hygiene. Person-to-person
transmission is most likely to occur among family members, at
day care centers, and at senior citizen homes. On average, an
infected person remains contagious for about two weeks, though
in some cases E. coli 0157:H7 has been found in stool samples
two to four months after an initial illness.
Some herds of American cattle may have
been infected with E. coli 0157:H7 decades ago. But the recent
changes in how cattle are raised, slaughtered, and processed have
created an ideal means for the pathogen to spread. The problem
begins in today's vast feedlots. A government health official,
who prefers not to be named, compared the sanitary conditions
in a modern feedlot to those in a crowded European city during
the Middle Ages, when people dumped their chamber pots out the
window, raw sewage ran in the streets, and epidemics raged.
The cattle now packed into feedlots get
little exercise and live amid pools of manure. "You shouldn't
eat dirty food and dirty water," the official told me. "But
we still think we can give animals dirty food and dirty water."
Feedlots have become an extremely efficient mechanism for "recirculating
the manure," which is unfortunate, since E. coli 0157:H7
can replicate in cattle troughs and survive in manure for up to
Far from their natural habitat, the cattle
in feedlots become more prone to all sorts of illnesses. And what
they are being fed often contributes to the spread of disease.
The rise in grain prices has encouraged the feeding of less expensive
materials to cattle, especially substances with a high protein
content that accelerate growth. About 75 percent of the cattle
in the United States were routinely fed livestock wastes-the rendered
remains of dead sheep and dead cattle-until August of 1997. They
were also fed millions of dead cats and dead dogs every year,
purchased from animal shelters. The FDA banned such practices
after evidence from Great Britain suggested that they were responsible
for a widespread outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), also known as "mad cow disease." Nevertheless,
current FDA regulations allow dead pigs and dead horses to be
rendered into cattle feed, along with dead poultry. The regulations
not only allow cattle to be fed dead poultry, they allow poultry
to be fed dead cattle. Americans who spent more than six months
in the United Kingdom during the 1980s are now forbidden to donate
blood, in order to prevent the spread of BSE's human variant,
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. But cattle blood is still put into
the feed given to American cattle. Steven P. Bjerklie, a former
editor of the trade journal Meat & Poultry, is appalled by
what goes into cattle feed these days. "Goddamn it, these
cattle are ruminants," Bjerklie says. "They're designed
to eat grass and, maybe, grain. I mean, they have four stomachs
for a reason-to eat products that have a high cellulose content.
They are not designed to eat other animals."
The waste products from poultry plants,
including the sawdust and old newspapers used as litter, are also
being fed to cattle. A study published a few years ago in Preventive
Medicine notes that in Arkansas alone, about 3 million pounds
of chicken manure were fed to cattle in 1994. According to Dr.
Neal D. Bernard, who heads the Physicians Committee for Responsible
Medicine, chicken manure may contain dangerous bacteria such as
Salmonella and Campylobacter, parasites such as tapeworms and
Giardia lamblia, antibiotic residues, arsenic, and heavy metals.
The pathogens from infected cattle are
spread not only in feedlots, but also at slaughterhouses and hamburger
grinders. The slaughterhouse tasks most likely to contaminate
meat are the removal of an animal's hide and the removal of its
digestive system. The hides are now pulled off by machine; if
a hide has been inadequately cleaned, chunks of dirt and manure
may fall from it onto the meat. Stomachs and intestines are still
pulled out of cattle by hand; if the job is not performed carefully,
the contents of the digestive system may spill everywhere.
A recent USDA study found that during the winter about 1 percent
of the cattle at feedlots carry E. coli 0157:H7 in their gut.
The proportion rises to as much as 50 percent during the summer.
Even if you assume that only 1 percent are infected, that means
three or four cattle bearing the microbe are eviscerated at a
large slaughterhouse every hour. The odds of widespread contamination
are raised exponentially when the meat is processed into ground
beef. A generation ago, local butchers and wholesalers made hamburger
meat out of leftover scraps. Ground beef was distributed locally,
and was often made from cattle slaughtered locally. Today large
slaughterhouses and grinders dominate the nationwide production
of ground beef. A modern processing plant can produce 800,000
pounds of hamburger a day, meat that will be shipped throughout
the United States. A single animal infected with E. coli 0157:H7
can contaminate 32,000 pounds of that ground beef
To make matters worse, the animals used
to make about one-quarter of the nation's ground beef-worn-out
dairy cattle-are the animals most likely to be diseased and riddled
with antibiotic residues. The stresses of industrial milk production
make them even more unhealthy than cattle in a large feedlot.
Dairy cattle can live as long as forty years, but are often slaughtered
at the age of four, when their milk output starts to decline.
McDonald's relies heavily on dairy cattle for its hamburger supplies,
since the animals are relatively inexpensive, yield low-fat meat,
and enable the chain to boast that all its beef is raised in the
United States. The days when hamburger meat was ground in the
back of a butcher shop, out of scraps from one or two sides of
beef, are long gone. Like the multiple sex partners that helped
spread the AIDS epidemic, the huge admixture of animals in most
American ground beef plants has played a crucial role in spreading
E. coli 0157:H7. A single fast food hamburger now contains meat
from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle.
"This is no fairy story and no joke," Upton Sinclair
wrote in 1906; "the meat would be shoveled into carts, and
the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a
rat even when he saw one -there were things that went into the
sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit."
Sinclair described a long list of practices in the meatpacking
industry that threatened the health of consumers: the routine
slaughter of diseased animals, the use of chemicals such as borax
and glycerine to disguise the smell of spoiled beef, the deliberate
mislabeling of canned meat, the tendency of workers to urinate
and defecate on the kill floor. After reading The Jungle President
Theodore Roosevelt ordered an independent investigation of Sinclair's
charges. When it confirmed the accuracy of the book, Roosevelt
called for legislation requiring mandatory federal inspection
of all meat sold through interstate commerce, accurate labeling
and dating of canned meat products, and a fee-based regulatory
system that made meatpackers pay the cost of cleaning up their
The powerful magnates of the Beef Trust
responded by vilifying Roosevelt and Upton Sinclair, dismissing
their accusations, and launching a public relations campaign to
persuade the American people that nothing was wrong. "Meat
and food products, generally speaking," J. Ogden Armour claimed
in a Saturday Evening Post article, "are handled as carefully
and circumspectly in large packing houses as they are in the average
home kitchen." Testifying before Congress, Thomas Wilson,
an executive at Morris & Company, said that blame for the
occasional sanitary lapse lay not with the policies of industry
executives, but with the greed and laziness of slaughterhouse
workers. "Men are men," Wilson contended, "and
it is pretty hard to control some of them." After an angry
legislative battle, Congress narrowly passed the Meat Inspection
Act of 1906, a watered-down version of Roosevelt's proposals that
made taxpayers pay for the new regulations.
The meatpacking industry's response to
The Jungle established a pattern that would be repeated throughout
the twentieth century, whenever health concerns were raised about
the nation's beef. The industry has repeatedly denied that problems
exist, impugned the motives of its critics, fought vehemently
against federal oversight, sought to avoid any responsibility
for outbreaks of food poisoning, and worked hard to shift the
costs of food safety efforts onto the general public. The industry's
strategy has been driven by a profound antipathy to any government
regulation that might lower profits. "There is no limit to
the expense that might be put upon us," the Beef Trust's
Wilson said in 1906, arguing against a federal inspection plan
that would have cost meatpackers less than a dime per head of
cattle. "[Our] contention is that in all reasonableness and
fairness we are paying all we care to pay."
During the 1980s, as the risks of widespread
contamination increased, the meatpacking industry blocked the
use of microbial testing in the federal meat inspection program.
A panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences warned in
1985 that the nation's meat inspection program was hopelessly
outdated, still relying on visual and olfactory clues to find
disease while dangerous pathogens slipped past undetected. Three
years later, another National Academy of Sciences panel warned
that the nation's public health infrastructure was in serious
disarray, limiting its ability to track or prevent the spread
of newly emerging pathogens. Without additional funding for public
health measures, outbreaks and epidemics of new diseases were
virtually inevitable. "Who knows what crisis will be next?"
said the chairman of the panel.
Nevertheless, the Reagan and Bush administrations
cut spending on public health measures and staffed the U.S. Department
of Agriculture with officials far more interested in government
deregulation than in food safety. The USDA became largely indistinguishable
from the industries it was meant to police. President Reagan's
first secretary of agriculture was in the hog business. His second
was the president of the American Meat Institute (formerly known
as the American Meat Packers Association). And his choice to run
the USDA's Food Marketing and Inspection Service was a vice president
of the National Cattleman's Association. President Bush later
appointed the president of the National Cattleman's Association
to the job.
Instead of focusing on the primary causes of meat contamination
-the feed being given to cattle, the overcrowding at feedlots,
the poor sanitation at slaughterhouses, excessive line speeds,
poorly trained workers, the lack of stringent government oversight-the
meatpacking industry and the USDA are now advocating an exotic
technological solution to the problem of foodborne pathogens.
They want to irradiate the nation's meat. Irradiation is a form
of bacterial birth control, pioneered in the 1960s by the U.S.
Army and by NASA. When microorganisms are zapped with low levels
of gamma rays or x-rays, they are not killed, but their DNA is
disrupted, and they cannot reproduce. Irradiation has been used
for years on some imported spices and domestic poultry. Most irradiating
facilities have concrete walls that are six feet thick, employing
cobalt 60 or cesium 137 (a waste product from nuclear weapons
plants and nuclear power plants) to create highly charged, radioactive
beams. A new technique, developed by the Titan Corporation, uses
conventional electricity and an electronic accelerator instead
of radioactive isotopes. Titan devised its SureBeam irradiation
technology during the 1980s, while conducting research for the
Star Wars antimissile program.
The American Medical Association and the
World Health Organization have declared that irradiated foods
are safe to eat. Widespread introduction of the process has thus
far been impeded, however, by a reluctance among consumers to
eat things that have been exposed to radiation. According to current
USDA regulations, irradiated meat must be identified with a special
label and with a radura (the internationally recognized symbol
of radiation). The Beef Industry Food Safety Council-whose members
include the meatpacking and fast food giants-has asked the USDA
to change its rules and make the labeling of irradiated meat completely
voluntary. The meatpacking industry is also working hard to get
rid of the word "irradiation," much preferring the phrase
One slaughterhouse engineer that I interviewed-who
has helped to invent some of the most sophisticated food safety
equipment now being used-told me that from a purely scientific
point of view, irradiation may be safe and effective. But he is
concerned about the introduction of highly complex electromagnetic
and nuclear technology into slaughterhouses with a largely illiterate,
non-English-speaking workforce. "These are not the type of
people you want working on that level of equipment," he says.
He also worries that the widespread use of irradiation might encourage
meatpackers "to speed up the kill floor and spray shit everywhere."
Steven Bjerklie, the former editor of Meat & Poultry, opposes
irradiation on similar grounds. He thinks it will reduce pressure
on the meatpacking industry to make fundamental and necessary
changes in their production methods, allowing unsanitary practices
to continue. "I don't want to be served irradiated feces
along with my meat," Bjerklie says.
A series of tests conducted by Charles Gerba, a microbiologist
at the University of Arizona, discovered far more fecal bacteria
in the average American kitchen sink than on the average American
toilet seat. According to Gerba, "You'd be better off eating
a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in
For most of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union stood as the
greatest obstacle to the worldwide spread of American values and
the American way of life. The collapse of Soviet Communism has
led to an unprecedented "Americanization" of the world,
expressed in the growing popularity of movies, CDs, music videos,
television shows, and clothing from the United States. Unlike
those commodities, fast food is the one form of American culture
that foreign consumers literally consume. By eating like Americans,
people all over the world are beginning to look more like Americans,
at least in one respect. The United States now has the highest
obesity rate of any industrialized nation in the world. More than
half of all American adults and about one-quarter of all American
children are now obese or overweight. Those proportions have soared
during the last few decades, along with the consumption of fast
food. The rate of obesity among American adults is twice as high
today as it was in the early 1960s. The rate of obesity among
American children is twice as high as it was in the late 1970s.
According to James O. Hill, a prominent nutritionist at the University
of Colorado, "We've got the fattest, least fit generation
of kids ever."
The medical literature classifies a person
as obese if he or she has a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher-a
measurement that takes into account both weight and height. For
example, a woman who is five-foot-five and weighs 132 pounds has
a BMI of 22, which is considered normal. If she gains eighteen
pounds, her BMI rises to 25, and she's considered overweight.
If she gains fifty pounds, her BMI reaches 30, and she's considered
obese. Today about 44 million American adults are obese. An additional
6 million are "super-obese"; they weigh about a hundred
pounds more than they should. No other nation in history has gotten
so fat so fast.
A recent study by half a dozen researchers
at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the
rate of American obesity was increasing in every state and among
both sexes, regardless of age, race, or educational level. In
1991, only four states had obesity rates of 15 percent or higher;
today at least thirty-seven states do. "Rarely do chronic
conditions such as obesity," the CDC scientists observed,
"spread with the speed and dispersion characteristic of a
communicable disease epidemic." Although the current rise
in obesity has a number of complex causes, genetics is not one
of them. The American gene pool has not changed radically in the
past few decades. What has changed is the nation's way of eating
and living. In simple terms: when people eat more and move less,
they get fat. In the United States, people have become increasingly
sedentary-driving to work instead of walking, performing little
manual labor, driving to do errands, watching television, playing
video games, and using a computer instead of exercising. Budget
cuts have eliminated physical education programs at many schools.
And the growth of the fast food industry has made an abundance
of high-fat, inexpensive meals widely available.
As people eat more meals outside the home,
they consume more calories, less fiber, and more fat. Commodity
prices have fallen so low that the fast food industry has greatly
increased its portion sizes, without reducing profits, in order
to attract customers. The size of a burger has become one of its
main selling points. Wendy's offers the Triple Decker; Burger
King, the Great American; and Hardee's sells a hamburger called
the Monster. The Little Caesars slogan "Big! Big!" now
applies not just to the industry's portions, but to its customers.
Over the past forty years in the United States, per capita consumption
of carbonated soft drinks has more than quadrupled. During the
late 1950s the typical soft drink order at a fast food restaurant
contained about eight ounces of soda; today a "Child"
order of Coke at McDonald's is twelve ounces. A "Large"
Coke is thirty-two ounces-and about 310 calories. In 1972, McDonald's
added Large French Fries to its menu; twenty years later, the
chain added Super Size Fries, a serving three times larger than
what McDonald's offered a generation ago. Super Size Fries have
610 calories and 29 grams of fat. At Carl's Jr. restaurants, an
order of CrissCut Fries and a Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger
boasts 73 grams of fat-more fat than ten of the chain's milk shakes.
A number of attempts to introduce healthy
dishes (such as the McLean Deluxe, a hamburger partly composed
of seaweed) have proven unsuccessful. A taste for fat developed
in childhood is difficult to lose as an adult. At the moment,
the fast food industry is heavily promoting menu items that contain
bacon. "Consumers savor the flavor while operators embrace
[the] profit margin," Advertising Age noted. A decade ago,
restaurants sold about 20 percent of the bacon consumed in the
United States; now they sell about 70 percent. "Make It Bacon"
is one of the new slogans at McDonald's. With the exception of
Subway (which promotes healthier food), the major chains have
apparently decided that it's much easier and much more profitable
to increase the size and the fat content of their portions than
to battle eating habits largely formed by years of their own mass
The cost of America's obesity epidemic
extends far beyond emotional pain and low self-esteem. Obesity
is now second only to smoking as a cause of mortality in the United
States. The CDC estimates that about 280,000 Americans die every
year as a direct result of being overweight. The annual health
care costs in the United States stemming from obesity now approach
$240 billion; on top of that Americans spend more than $33 billion
on various weight-loss schemes and diet products. Obesity has
been linked to heart disease, colon cancer, stomach cancer, breast
cancer, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, infertility,
and strokes. A 1999 study by the American Cancer Society found
that overweight people had a much higher rate of premature death.
Severely overweight people were four times more likely to die
young than people of normal weight. Moderately overweight people
were twice as likely to die young. "The message is we're
too fat and it's killing us," said one of the study's principal
authors. Young people who are obese face not only long-term, but
also immediate threats to their health. Severely obese American
children, aged six to ten, are now dying from heart attacks caused
by their weight.
The obesity epidemic that began in the
United States during the late 1970s is now spreading to the rest
of the world, with fast food as one of its vectors. Between 1984
and 1993, the number of fast food restaurants in Great Britain
roughly doubled-and so did the obesity rate among adults. The
British now eat more fast food than any other nationality in Western
Europe. They also have the highest obesity rate. Obesity is much
less of a problem in Italy and Spain, where spending on fast food
is relatively low. The relationship between a nation's fast food
consumption and its rate of obesity has not been definitively
established through any long-term, epidemiological study. The
growing popularity of fast food is just one of many cultural changes
that have been brought about by globalization. Nevertheless, it
seems wherever America's fast food chains go, waistlines start
In China, the proportion of overweight
teenagers has roughly tripled in the past decade. In Japan, eating
hamburgers and french fries has not made people any blonder, though
it has made them fatter. Overweight people were once a rarity
in Japan. The nation's traditional diet of rice, fish, vegetables,
and soy products has been deemed one of the healthiest in the
world. And yet the Japanese are rapidly abandoning that diet.
Consumption of red meat has been rising in Japan since the American
occupation after World War II. The arrival of McDonald's in 1971
accelerated the shift in Japanese eating habits. During the 1980s,
the sale of fast food in Japan more than doubled; the rate of
obesity among children soon doubled, too. Today about one-third
of all Japanese men in their thirties - members of the nation's
first generation raised on Happy Meals and "Big Macs - are
overweight. Heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and breast
cancer, the principal "diseases of affluence," have
been linked to diets low in fiber and high in animal fats. Long
common in the United States, these diseases are likely to become
widespread in Japan as its fast food generation ages. More than
a decade ago a study of middle-aged Japanese men who had settled
in the United States found that their switch to a Western diet
doubled their risk of heart disease and tripled their risk of
stroke. For the men in the study, embracing an American way of
life meant increasing the likelihood of a premature death.
Obesity is extremely difficult to cure.
During thousands of years marked by food scarcity, human beings
developed efficient physiological mechanisms to store energy as
fat. Until recently, societies rarely enjoyed an overabundance
of cheap food. As a result, our bodies are far more efficient
at gaining weight than at losing it. Health officials have concluded
that prevention, not treatment, offers the best hope of halting
the worldwide obesity epidemic. European consumer groups are pushing
for a complete ban on all television advertising directed at children.
In 1991 Sweden banned all TV advertising directed at children
under the age of twelve. Restrictions on ads during children's
programming have been imposed in Greece, Norway, Denmark, Austria,
and the Netherlands. The eating habits of American kids are widely
considered a good example of what other countries must avoid.
American children now get about one-quarter of their total vegetable
servings in the form of potato chips or french fries. A survey
of children's advertising in the European Union (EU) found that
95 percent of the food ads there encouraged kids to eat foods
high in sugar, salt, and fat. The company running the most ads
aimed at children was McDonald's.
The longest-running and most systematic assault on fast food over-
~ seas has been waged by a pair of British activists affiliated
with London Greenpeace. The loosely organized group was formed
in 1971 to oppose French nuclear weapon tests in the South Seas.
It later staged demonstrations in support of animal rights and
British trade unions. It protested against nuclear power and the
Falklands War. The group's membership was a small, eclectic mix
of pacifists, anarchists, vegetarians, and libertarians brought
together by a commitment to nonviolent political action. They
ran the organization without any formal leadership, even refusing
to join the International Greenpeace movement.
A typical meeting of London Greenpeace
attracted anywhere from three people to three dozen. In 1986 the
group decided to target McDonald's, later explaining that the
company "epitomises everything we despise: a junk culture,
the deadly banality of capitalism." Members of London Greenpeace
began to distribute a six-page leaflet called "What's Wrong
with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know."
It accused the fast food chain of promoting Third World poverty,
selling unhealthy food, exploiting workers and children, torturing
animals, and destroying the Amazon rain forest, among other things.
Some of the text was factual and straightforward; some of it was
pure agitprop. Along the top of the leaflet ran a series of golden
arches punctuated by slogans like "McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer,
McMurder, McProfits, McGarbage." London Greenpeace distributed
the leaflets for four years without attracting much attention.
And then in September of 1990 McDonald's sued five members of
the group for libel, claiming that every statement in the leaflet
The libel laws in Great Britain are far
more unfavorable to a defendant than those in the United States.
Under American law, an accuser must prove that the allegations
at the heart of a libel case are not only false and defamatory,
but also have been recklessly, negligently, or deliberately spread.
Under British law, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Allegations
that may harm someone's reputation are presumed to be false. Moreover,
the defendant in a British court has to use primary sources, such
as firsthand witnesses and official documents, to prove the accuracy
of a published statement. Secondary sources, including peer-reviewed
articles in scientific journals, are deemed inadmissible as evidence.
And the defendant's intentions are irrelevant-a British libel
case can be lost because of a truly innocent mistake.
The McDonald's Corporation had for years
taken advantage of British libel laws to silence its critics.
During the 1980s alone, McDonald's threatened to sue at least
fifty British publications and organizations, including Channel
4, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Sun, student publications,
a vegetarian society, and a Scottish youth theater group. The
tactic worked, prompting retractions and apologies. The cost of
losing a libel case, in both legal fees and damages, could be
The London Greenpeace activists being
sued by McDonald's had not written the leaflet in question; they
had merely handed it to people. Nevertheless, their behavior could
be ruled libelous. Fearing the potential monetary costs, three
of the activists reluctantly appeared in court and apologized
to McDonald's. The other two decided to fight.
Helen Steel was a twenty-five-year-old
gardener, minibus driver, and bartender who'd been drawn to London
Greenpeace by her devotion to vegetarianism and animal rights.
Dave Morris was a thirty-six-year-old single father, a former
postal worker interested in labor issues and the power of multinational
corporations. The two friends seemed to stand little chance in
court against the world's largest fast food chain. Steel had left
school at seventeen, Morris at eighteen; and neither could afford
a lawyer. McDonald's, on the other hand, could afford armies of
attorneys and had annual revenues at the time of about $18 billion.
Morris and Steel were denied legal aid and forced to defend themselves
in front of a judge, instead of a jury. But with some help from
the secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, the
pair turned the "McLibel case" into the longest trial
in British history and a public relations disaster for McDonald's.
The McDonald's Corporation had never expected
the case to reach the courtroom. The burden on the defendants
was enormous: Morris and Steel had to assemble witnesses and official
documents to support the broad assertions in the leaflet. The
pair proved to be indefatigable researchers, aided by the McLibel
Support Campaign, an international network of activists. By the
end of the trial, the court record included 40,000 pages of documents
and witness statements, as well as 18,000 pages of transcripts.
McDonald's had made a huge tactical error
by asserting that everything in the leaflet was libelous-not only
the more extreme claims ("McDonald's and Burger King are
. . . using lethal poisons to destroy vast areas of Central American
rainforest"), but also the more innocuous ones ("a diet
high in fat, sugar, animal products, and salt . . . is linked
with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease").
The blunder allowed Steel and Morris to turn the tables, putting
McDonald's on trial and forcing a public examination of the chain's
labor, marketing, environmental, nutrition, food safety, and animal
welfare policies. Some of the chain's top executives were forced
to appear on the stand and endure days of cross-examination by
the pair of self-taught attorneys. The British media seized upon
the David-and Goliath aspects of the story and made the trial
After years of legal wrangling, the McLibel
trial formally began in March of 1994. It ended more than three
years later, when Justice Rodger Bell submitted an 800-page Judgement.
Morris and Steel were found to have libeled McDonald's. The judge
ruled that the two had failed to prove most of their allegations-but
had indeed proved some. According to Justice Bell's decision,
McDonald's did "exploit" children through its advertising,
endanger the health of its regular customers, pay workers unreasonably
low wages, and bear responsibility for the cruelty inflicted upon
animals by many of its suppliers. Morris and Steel were fined
60,000 pounds. The two promptly announced they would appeal the
decision. "McDonald's don't deserve a penny," Helen
Steel said, "and in any event we haven't got any money."
Evidence submitted during the McLibel
trial disclosed much about the inner workings of the McDonald's
Corporation. Many of its labor, food safety, and advertising practices
had already been publicly criticized in the United States for
years. Testimony in the London courtroom, however, provided new
revelations about the company's attitude toward civil liberties
and freedom of speech. Morris and Steel were stunned to discover
that McDonald's had infiltrated London Greenpeace with informers,
who regularly attended the group's meetings and spied on its members.
The spying had begun in 1989 and did not
end until 1991, nearly a year after the libel suit had been filed.
McDonald's had used subterfuge not only to find out who'd distributed
the leaflets, but also to learn how Morris and Steel planned to
defend themselves in court. The company had employed at least
seven different undercover agents. During some London Greenpeace
meetings, about half the people in attendance were corporate spies.
One spy broke into the London Greenpeace office, took photographs,
and stole documents. Another had a six-month affair with a member
of London Greenpeace while informing on his activities. McDonald's
spies inadvertently spied on each other, unaware that the company
was using at least two different detective agencies. They participated
in demonstrations against McDonald's and gave out anti-McDonald's
During the trial, Sidney Nicholson-the
McDonald's vice president who'd supervised the undercover operation,
a former police officer in South Africa and former superintendent
in London's Metropolitan Police-admitted in court that McDonald's
had used its law enforcement connections to obtain information
on Steel and Morris from Scotland Yard. Indeed, officers belonging
to Special Branch, an elite British unit that tracks "subversives"
and organized crime figures, had helped McDonald's spy on Steel
and Morris for years. One of the company's undercover agents later
had a change of heart and testified on behalf of the McLibel defendants.
"At no time did I believe they were dangerous people,"
said Fran Tiller, following her conversion to vegetarianism. "I
think they genuinely believed in the issues they were supporting."
For Dave Morris, perhaps the most disturbing
moment of the trial was hearing how McDonald's had obtained his
home address. One of its spies admitted in court that a gift of
baby clothes had been a ruse to find out where Morris lived. Morris
had unwittingly accepted the gift, believing it to be an act of
friendship-and was disgusted to learn that his infant son had
for months worn outfits supplied by McDonald's as part of its
I visited Dave Morris one night in February
of 1999, as he prepared for an appearance the next day before
the Court of Appeal. Morris lives in a small flat above a carpet
shop in North London. The apartment lacks central heating, the
ceilings are sagging, and the place is crammed with books, boxes,
files, transcripts, leaflets, and posters announcing various demonstrations.
The place feels like everything McDonald's is not-lively, unruly,
deeply idiosyncratic, and organized according to a highly complex
scheme that only one human being could possibly understand. Morris
spent about an hour with me, as his son finished homework upstairs.
He spoke intensely about McDonald's, but stressed that its arrogant
behavior was just one manifestation of a much larger problem now
confronting the world: the rise of powerful multinationals that
shift capital across borders with few qualms, that feel no allegiance
to any nation, no loyalty to any group of farmers, workers, or
The British journalist John Vidal, in
his book on the McLibel trial, noted some of the similarities
between Dave Morris and Ray Kroc. As Morris offered an impassioned
critique of globalization, the comparison made sense-both men
true believers, charismatic, driven by ideas outside the mainstream,
albeit championing opposite viewpoints. During the McLibel trial,
Paul Preston, the president of McDonald's UK, had said, "Fitting
into a finely working machine, that's what McDonald's is about."
And here was Morris, in the living room of his North London flat,
warmed by a gas heater in the fireplace, surrounded by stacks
of papers and files, caring nothing for money, determined somehow
to smash that machine.
On March 31, 1999, the three Court of
Appeal justices overruled parts of the original McLibel verdict,
supporting the leaflet's assertions that eating McDonald's food
can cause heart disease and that workers are treated badly. The
court reduced the damages owed by Steel and Morris to about 40,000
pounds. The McDonald's Corporation had previously announced that
it had no intention of collecting the money and would no longer
try to stop London Greenpeace from distributing the leaflet (which
by then had been translated into twenty-seven languages). McDonald's
was tired of the bad publicity and wanted this case to go away.
But Morris and Steel were not yet through with McDonald's. They
appealed the Court of Appeal decision to the British House of
Lords and sued the police for spying on them. Scotland Yard settled
the case out of court, apologizing to the pair and paying them
10,000 pounds in damages. When the House of Lords refused to hear
their case, Morris and Steel filed an appeal with the European
Court of Human Rights, challenging the validity not only of the
verdict, but also of the British libel laws. As of this writing,
the McLibel case is entering its twelfth year. After intimidating
British critics for years, the McDonald's Corporation picked on
the wrong two people.
Having centralized American agriculture, the large agribusiness
firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism
of their policies. Over the past decade, "veggie libel laws"
backed by agribusiness have been passed in thirteen states. The
laws make it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in
a manner inconsistent with "reasonable" scientific evidence.
The whole concept of "veggie libel" is probably unconstitutional;
nevertheless, these laws remain on the books.
Congress should ban advertizing that preys upon children, it should
stop subsidizing dead-end jobs, it should pass tougher food safety
laws, it should protect American workers from serious harm, it
should fight against dangerous concentrations of economic power.
Congress should do all those things, but it isn't likely to do
any of them soon. The political influence of the fast food industry
and its agribusiness suppliers makes a discussion of what Congress
should do largely academic. The fast food industry spends millions
of dollar every year on lobbying and billions on mass marketing.
The wealth and power of the major chains make them seem impossible
... for the past two decades the right wing of the Republican
Party has worked closely with the fast food industry and the meatpacking
industry to oppose food safety laws, worker safety laws, and increases
in the minimum wage.
Texas is the only state in the Union that allows a company to
leave the workers' comp system and set up its own process for
dealing with workplace injuries.