Big Mac chief says his burgers are safe: A libel action has immersed the High Court into the corporate culture of McDonald's

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The Independent Online
THE HIGH Court was deeply immersed in McDonald's corporate culture yesterday, when the hamburger chain's United Kingdom chief executive gave evidence in a libel action against two radical environmentalists.

Paul Preston, an American who has lived in Britain for 20 years, denied claims made in a 1989 anti-McDonald's leaflet that its food was unhealthy and unsafe, its workers exploited and discouraged from joining trade unions and that the beef used in its hamburgers contributed to Third World hunger and rainforest destruction.

Mr Preston told Mr Justice Bell that he, his wife and two teenage daughters frequently ate at McDonald's and denied that the food from the world's largest fast food chain might cause customers heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It was made of components that 'every man, woman and child' might find in their pantry or fridge.

'Beef, chicken, milk, bread, potatoes, orange juice, mineral water - I've found them in every household I've ever visited. They are the commodities on which mankind has built its diet. Taken in balance with sleep and exercise, they are perfectly safe and perfectly healthy,' he said, adding that he did not know of any reasons why additives should not be used.

Mr Preston was the first of several top McDonald's executives who will give evidence in the case, which is expected to last three months and cost more than pounds 1m.

Dave Morris and Helen Steel, who have no legal aid and are defending themselves in the case, deny writing or distributing the leaflet, but they say its contents are true or fair comment.

Mr Preston told the court he began working at a McDonald's restaurant near his home in Fairview Park, Ohio, at the age of 16. He carried on working there during university vacations. After university, he worked for McDonald's full-time, apart from a brief spell in the military, rising to run a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1974, Mr Preston and three other McDonald's managers opened the first British restaurant - in Woolwich, south-east London.

Now there are 521 restaurants in the UK serving about 500 million meals a year and employing 31,000 people, he said. Many restaurants were run by franchisees, but the corporation demanded the same high standards from them as from its own outlets with regular checks and the threat of disenfranchisement if they failed to respond.

About 90 per cent of the beef used in the UK comes from this country, with the rest coming from within the European Union. A quarter- pound beefburger contained 100 per cent beef without any additives or preservatives.

He did not know of any incidents of food poisoning involving McDonald's, barring one outbreak in Preston, Lancashire, in 1991. That was taken very seriously by the company and led to changes at local and national level.

As for cruelty to farm animals before or during slaughter 'if I found that was going on, I would counsel the supplier. If that didn't work, I would terminate the supplier and he would never sell to me again,' he said.

Wages paid by McDonald's were highly competitive and the chances of promotion were good. 'If an individual wants to join a union, the law gives him or her that right. If a store felt it wanted to be unionised, we'd have to do it,' Mr Preston said.

The case continues today.