What's in the Meat?

Global Realization

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 United States.

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 ninety days.

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 own industry.

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 "cold pasteurization."

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 your sink."


Global Realization
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 marketing.

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 expanding.

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 was false.

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 huge.

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 front-page news.

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 leaflets.

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 surveillance.

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 consumers.

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 to defeat.

... 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.

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