PROFILE McDonald's: Everyone loves a McNasty

James Delingpole explains why the ubiquitous hamburger has conquered the world

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Hey you! Yes you, sir, with the Adidas poppers and the terrible acne. You do realise, I hope, that that Big Mac and fries you're about to stuff into your fat, ugly face could well be contributing to your exceedingly poor state of health?

And you madam, with the big, red-framed glasses. Guardian-reader, I imagine. Did you have any idea that one of the main reasons your pounds 1.49 McRib cost so remarkably little was because of the low wages McDonald's pays that hapless young thing behind the till with the gormless expression?

And you, my young cutie. You look a sweet, sensitive, caring sort. It's not that I want to make your Happy Meal unhappy or anything, but I think you're old enough now to learn the terrible truth about Ronald McDonald. He exploits children like you through advertising. And he's horrid to animals, so there.

Sorry to rain on your Easter parade, all you millions of McDonald's munchers out there, but I'm simply telling it like it is. McDonald's isn't environmentally friendly and it isn't good for your health. Three Lords Justices confirmed as much in a Court of Appeal ruling on Wednesday, in the latest round of the 10-year battle between the hamburger giant and green anarchists Dave Morris and Helen Steel.

All right, so the victory won by Morris and Steel - better known as the McLibel Two - was somewhat pyrrhic. Their claims that McDonald's poisons its customers, destroys rainforests and exploits Third World countries were rejected by the judges as untrue. And they still owe McDonald's pounds 40,000 in damages.

Even so, the court's decision is surely a cause for rejoicing across the land. For that's the difference at McDonald's you'll enjoy: you're always going to find something about the company to hate. For conservatives, it's an aesthetic issue; for socialists, it's a political one; for greens it's environmental. But it wasn't always thus. In October 1974, when the first British McDonald's franchise opened in Powis Street, London W1, it was greeted with almost as much joy as when allied troops re-entered the capitals of Europe 30 years before. At last! Freedom from the tyranny of the Wimpy with its greasy spoon ambience, sluggish service, and cardboard- flavoured burgers! Welcome to our heroic American liberators!

And before that - long before the days of internet sites with names such as McDonald's Ate My McBalls, I Hate McDonald's Page and Ronald Must Die - the McDonald's chain embodied the thrusting, can-do spirit of Fifties America with staff mottoes such as: "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean."

The first McDonald's restaurant was opened in San Bernardino, California, in 1948 by brothers Mac and Richard "Dick" McDonald. Mac ran the restaurant side; Dick was the marketing genius. He had already invented the drive- in laundry and had been the first person to use neon signs in advertising. Now he spotted the gap in the post-war, baby-boom market for cheap, family- orientated restaurants with simple menus, standardised food and efficient service.

After a slow start, business began to boom. By 1954, the brothers were joined by another entrepreneur, a kitchen equipment salesman called Ray A Kroc who owned the franchise to the Multimixer milk shake maker used throughout the McDonald's chain. A year later, Kroc had bought the McDonald brothers' chain of 25 franchises for the equivalent of around $70m (pounds 44m). Dick remained with the company until the Seventies, when he and Kroc fell out over Kroc's claim that the chain was his creation.

Today, an almost Stalinist cult of personality surrounds Kroc (who died in 1984) at McDonald's, while the brothers who gave the company its name have all but been written out of its history. But though Kroc did not found McDonald's, he was certainly responsible for the empire-building philosophy which led to its world domination. He ushered in such essential contributions to international cuisine as the Big Mac (1968) and the Egg McMuffin (1973); and helped launch Ronald McDonald - "in any language he means fun!" - on to television in 1963. Every three hours, a new McDonald's franchise opens somewhere in the world; it can be found in more than 100 countries including India (vegetarian-only to avoid offending the non- beef-eating populace) and Israel (non-kosher, despite fierce local objection); the company is the planet's single biggest provider of food, with annual sales of around $12.4bn. And, most scarily of all, the company's sinister Ronald McDonald clown is now (or so the company claims) the world's most recognised person after Santa Claus. Of course, McDonald's isn't all bad. It funds the Ronald McDonald House charities for families of critically- ill children; it provides employment to more than a million young people and gives them an efficient commercial grounding at its McDonald's "universities"; and there's even a bizarre theory that McDonald's has actually helped bring peace to the world.

According to the "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention" no two countries with a McDonald's have ever gone to war with one another. (And before you say "What about Yugoslavia?", the Belgrade McDonald's is now closed).

But apart from that, McDonald's sucks, right? Well no, hugely tempting though it is to give a corporate monster a good kicking when it's down. Though it has been quite some time since I've eaten there myself, I still retain fond memories of the days I used to go there as a student.

There really is a special quality to the McDonald's hamburger that nobody else can quite replicate. In the Big Mac, for example, it's the combination of that flaccid sesame bun, the sliced gherkin, plastic cheese, industrial mayonnaise - and beef, of course. Unwholesome? Yes. Disgusting? Indubitably. Nutritious? Hardly. But for all that, the Big Mac is hugely pleasurable and highly addictive.

There's invariably an ulterior motive behind all those high-minded criticisms. In the case of the conservative lobby, it's sheer snobbery. Of course McDonald's is tacky and plasticky and cheap 'n' cheerful; of course the lighting's horrible and so are the people, the noise; of course our high streets would be prettier without those ghastly signs. But where do all these snooty middle class people go when they want to give their kids an Easter treat or to stage a bargain basement birthday party? Why, to McDonald's. Nor do the left-wing arguments hold much water. McDonald's has as great a duty to its shareholders as any other publicly quoted company. Why shouldn't it strive to cut costs as much as the law allows? It doesn't send press gangs out into the streets to recruit its workers. They take their McJobs by choice: because it's preferable to being on the dole. And by cutting labour costs, McDonald's provides cheap meals to those who might otherwise be unable to afford them.

As for the greens, their argument is the most sinister of the lot. As they admit on their McSpotlight website, they're "a bunch of vegetable munching fanatics" who want to stop us all eating meat. And whatever your line on vegetarianism, you have to concede that McDonald's is not the only multinational organisation in the world which encourages us to eat dead animals. Nor is it the only one which happily uses factory farmed produce. It's just a convenient scapegoat and if it ceased to exist there'd be thousands of others who'd take its place.

And yes, maybe it is somewhat ludicrous that McDonald's strives to present itself as a model of beneficence; that, backed by a $2bn a year promotional budget, it has the gall to claim that eating greasy junk food can actually be good for your health. But is there really anyone in the world so stupid as to believe that corporate spin-doctor's guff? Do mothers really say to themselves: "Well I was going to give my children some wholemeal bread and an organic vegetable stew for lunch, but now I know how healthy McDonald's is, I'm going to give them a Happy Meal instead"?

Of course they don't. The reason everyone goes to McDonald's is because it's cheap, it's efficient, it's family friendly and because they like the taste of the food. They do not do it for the good of their health or their souls. To eat at McDonald's - as 99 per cent of us have done at some time in our lives - and then come over all high-minded about its shortcomings is as absurd as smoking 60 cigarettes a day and then complaining that you've contracted emphysema. There's no need to stamp McDonald's with a health warning. It already has one: caveat emptor.

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