McDonald’s is the world’s largest user of beef, and of all companies, probably has the most colorful animal rights history. From the longest trial in British history, to the non-vegetarian french fry scandal, to their support of factory farming practices, McDonald’s seems unable to keep themselves out of the campaigns of animal activists.
The McLibel Trial
In 1990, McDonald’s sued five British activists for libel, in what would turn out to be the longest trial in British history and a public relations disaster. McDonald’s sued the activists over a pamphlet titled “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s -- Everything They Don’t Want You to Know,” that they had allegedly published and distributed. The pamphlet contained numerous accusations about McDonald’s environmental destruction, animal cruelty, employee exploitation, and unhealthy food.
At the beginning of the “McLibel” trial, three of the activists backed down and apologized to McDonald’s. However, two activists refused to apologize, and stood their ground. Helen Steel and Dave Morris, a gardener and a postman, represented themselves in court with minimal professional legal advice. Their costs were covered by public donations.
After many pre-trial motions and hearings, the trial began officially in 1994. Expert witnesses on health, the environment, and animal agriculture testified on the accusations contained in the pamphlet. Throughout the trial, the defendants provided quotes from the transcripts to the media, and the world watched as the large, multi-national corporation’s team of attorneys bullied the two activists in court. Negative quotes on nutrition, working conditions, and environmental destruction came from McDonald’s own witnesses and documents, which provided ample fodder for the media frenzy.
Arguments continued through 1996, and in 1997, the judge rendered his decision. He ruled that the defendants had not proven the truth of their accusations relating to rainforest destruction, heart disease and cancer, food poisoning and starvation in the Third World. But they had proved that McDonald’s exploits children, falsely claims that their food is nutritious, is responsible for cruelty to animals and pays their employees low wages. Because Steel and Morris were not able to prove all of the allegations in the pamphlet, they were found liable and were ordered to pay 60,000 pounds to McDonald’s. The defendants vowed not to pay the money and stated that they had no money anyway, and McDonald’s did not attempt to collect it.
In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the McLibel trial breached the defendants’ right to a fair trial and right to free speech, mainly because they were denied legal aid.
Although the verdict was arguably a legal victory for McDonald’s, the case was called “the biggest Corporate PR disaster in history.”
Non-Vegetarian French Fries
McDonald’s announced in 1990 (coincidentally, the same year the McLibel lawsuit was filed) that its french fries are fried in 100% vegetable oil. Many vegetarians started consuming the fries, because they had previously been fried in a mixture of beef tallow and vegetable oil. However, in 2001, it became widely known that the “natural flavor” in the list of ingredients of the fries was actually beef extract. The beef extract is added before the fries are frozen and shipped to the individual restaurants, where they are then fried in 100% vegetable oil.
Faced with the wrath of vegetarians who felt that they had been deceived, McDonald’s stated that they had never claimed that their fries were vegetarian. However, some McDonald’s employees did claim that the fries were vegetarian. And in 1993, McDonald’s had sent a letter in response to a customer inquiry that listed the fries as a food that vegetarians can enjoy at McDonald’s. A class action lawsuit was filed against McDonald’s on behalf of all vegetarians, and McDonald’s agreed in 2002 to settle for $10 million, with $6 million going to vegetarian organizations.
As of September, 2011, McDonald's still uses "natural beef flavor" in their french fries.
In 1999, PETA began a campaign against McDonald’s, demanding that the company purchase products only from suppliers that met certain humane standards. The “McCruelty” campaign was indefinitely suspended 11 months later, when McDonald’s agreed to several conditions, including buying eggs only from suppliers that offered at least 72 square inches of space per hen and did not engage in the cruel practice of forced molting. However, this was not the end of the story.
By 2008, McDonald’s had made no further improvements since 1999. During that same time period, Burger King adopted a more stringent set of policies for animal welfare. The Humane Society of the US demanded that McDonald’s adopt an animal welfare policy that is at least as rigorous as Burger King’s.
In 2009, PETA renewed its McCruelty campaign. According to PETA:
All of McDonald's U.S. chicken suppliers use a system called "electrical immobilization" to kill birds, which involves dumping birds out of transport crates and hanging them upside-down in metal shackles—often resulting in broken bones, extreme bruising, and hemorrhaging. The birds then have their throats cut while they are still conscious and are often immersed in tanks of scalding-hot water while they are still alive and able to feel pain.PETA is now asking McDonald's to "demand that its suppliers switch to a less cruel method of chicken slaughter called controlled-atmosphere killing, or CAK."
As long as McDonald’s is the world’s largest user of beef, they will never be the corporate paragon of animal welfare. They do, however, have a long way to go before they can even hope to no longer be a target for animal activists.