Vittles 6.21 - On McDonald's and Evil

Grievances with the Clown, by Mic Wright

If you have been enjoying Vittles, then you can contribute to its upkeep by subscribing via Patreon, which ensures all contributors are paid. All donations are very much appreciated.

I don’t trust the opinion of anyone who says they don’t like the McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger. I’ll make an exceptions for vegetarians here ─ I know when you cut meat out of your diet your concept of what is delicious and what isn’t soon gets recalibrated. Beetroots become intense sugar bombs; artichokes and mushrooms start to taste fleshy, while actual meat (and particularly processed meat) becomes too sickly a thought to handle. But if you do eat meat and you don’t love the Double Cheeseburger, then you and I have fundamentally incompatible concepts of ‘deliciousness’ and anything you say about food is immediately suspect.

The first time I realised this was when a famous food critic laid into it on Twitter. “Who are you kidding?” I thought. The most devious minds in food development, aided by a limitless arsenal of capital, have spent years tweaking and whittling this burger so it hits every sensory pleasure point you can think of and you don’t like it? The salt, the acidity, the umami, the squishiness, the way the meat and cheese fuse together to form some hybrid patty which has no natural analogues. What makes you so immune? The children who were shown by Jamie Oliver how McNuggets are made and still decided to eat them should have been a wake-up call on how to tackle the genuine evilness of McDonald’s. The unfortunate fact is that this corporation makes extraordinary products ─ three of which (the Double Cheeseburger, the Filet and the Nuggets) are unimprovable fast food items.

As Mic Wright says in today’s newsletter, trying to fight McDonald’s on issues of consumer harm ─ whether that’s health or taste ─ was and is a tactical error. It ties into a wider trend of trying to frame food issues around the negligible impact on the consumer and not the tangible impact on the workers who make them. It’s the same framing that advocates for no pesticide use in case we ingest a trivial amount, and not because of the health impact on those who spray them; or the idea chlorinated chicken will make us ill and not the factory workers and animals who will be exposed to more unsanitary conditions.

Maybe it’s because we’re inherently selfish creatures, and all arguments need to link back to ourselves somehow, but by focusing on the impact of a cheeseburger on someone who has the agency to choose it as an occasional treat, you take focus away from a chain of people ─ from staff, to factory workers, to farmers, to animals ─ who have no agency. It is possible to find McDonald’s delicious whilst still acknowledging that is it built on a system of exploitation - in fact, maybe the first step to understanding just how evil it is is to admit it.

Grievances with the Clown, by Mic Wright

“Nature is returning to the cities,” we cried in May, as McDonald’s announced a limited reopening of restaurants scattered across the country. Those in the North rapidly noticed that none of the outlets chosen were beyond the wall, and returned to plotting an entirely justified violent revolution. The rest of us – okay, me and a bunch of people I know – immediately began scanning the ‘limited’ menu to decide what we’d order first. I contemplated persuading commissioning editors to pay me to eat the entire menu under the pretence that it would be a challenge, like those memes where they ask whether you could eat a whole huge pizza for $1000. Realistically, I’d do it for free if they threw in a one-litre bottle of Diet Coke. But the joy we feel about McDonald’s reopening needs to be tempered by some more complicated feelings. 

The ethics of loving McDonald’s are not simple. In fact, it’s not ethical at all – there are all sorts of horrible issues that most of us seem able to push to the back of our minds. The McLibel trial in the ’90s, today’s McStrike campaign by exploited workers, the revelation that McDonald’s had semi-secretly been cooking its fries in beef dripping, that it served tainted meat at some of its Chinese restaurants, that it has ruthlessly exploited zero-hours contracts in the US and elsewhere, that in 2002 it introduced the McAfrika while famine was ravaging half of the continent, the continuing accusations of wage theft that drives pay for employees at some locations below minimum wage… the list of issues both contemporary and historic is long. 

McDonalds has become cannier at getting around scandals and controversies. The aggressively litigious 1990s McDonald’s that pushed the McLibel trial is dead. That case, in which the company pursued a libel action against environmental activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, over a fact sheet that criticised the company, ran for nearly ten years. While McDonald’s initially won £40,000 in damages – which it didn’t attempt to collect – the European Court of Human Rights ruling found that Steel and Morris did not receive a fair trial and awarded a £57,000 judgement in their favour against the UK government.  

Capitalism is a clever beast and McDonald’s knows how to evolve when it’s beaten – not just by introducing more healthy options, but framing itself as a ‘treat’ rather than a central plank of many of its consumers’ diets. Yet the cuddlier, friendlier version of McDonald’s in the 2020s is still a union-busting, waste-creating dragon squatting on its horde of gold while its workers remain largely underpaid and undervalued. Throughout its history, it has used strategies in restaurants across the world to keep trade unions out and avoid or undermine other means of worker representation. The new McDonald’s just tells more softly spoken tales about its good works – putting heartwarming anecdotes about staff training and stories about where it sources produce at the centre of many ad campaigns. The ‘idea’ of McDonald’s is the company’s best product; it appears to reinvent itself whenever its survival is threatened. 

Where once McDonald’s competed with rivals mostly on price and quantity, it now tries to play on quality and familiarity too. Over the years, it has shifted away from chicken and beef, which got it a reputation as low quality, towards pricier cuts and offerings like whole chicken breast meat in nuggets. It introduced salads and wraps, as well as apple bags and carrot sticks in Happy Meals, to give the menu a sheen of healthiness. Its grab for the vegan market ties into that image. In January, Impossible Foods announced that it was no longer trying to get a deal to sell its plant-based meat alternative to McDonald’s as it just couldn’t produce enough to meet the corporation’s demand for it. McDonald’s in Germany and Israel, in fact, already sell plant-based burgers made by Nestle. This all introduces more issues behind the scenes; according to many food writers plant-based meat alternative production leads to its own problems, particularly when driven by venture-capital backed tech companies

When Morgan Spurlock targeted McDonald’s with his movie Super Size Me, he fought them on issues of health, attacking the then-popular ‘supersize’ meal option. But his stunt – eating McDonald’s and nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days – was a tactical error. It helped make him famous, but did little to address the real ethical issues in the supply chain or the fundamental inequalities faced by workers. Spurlock attacked McDonald’s on a weakness it was able to easily counter with relatively minor changes, rather than on structural inequalities, which fuel much of the company’s success. 

In April, the Bakers, Food And Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) put ten questions to McDonald’s UK relating to their reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, for which it did not receive adequate answers. They included queries around relaxation of uniform rules to allow homemade PPE, whether workers will receive full sick pay from day one, how McDonald’s and its franchisees will ensure proper social distancing, and if skeleton crews will be scheduled to ensure that such distancing is possible. Critically, it wanted a commitment from McDonald’s that workers will receive a pay bump to recognise the increased risks taken by them in returning to work. McDonald’s has introducing perspex screens in restaurants and temperature checks for staff when they arrive for shifts, but has made no announcements or commitments about improved pay. 

While many McDonald’s orders wing their way to people courtesy of UberEats and the company’s own McDelivery service – whose delivery drivers are themselves precariously employed/contracted workers – the labour done to build your Big Mac or your sharing box of McNuggets is obscured. They just magically arrive like a dirty little secret, even if it is a dirty little secret that we’ll faux-shamefully boast about on social media. An UberEats driver told The Mirror about what followed the opening of some branches: “The drivers were all bunched outside, it was chaotic, a danger for everyone involved. Because we’re self-employed, I don’t think they view us as proper people. We’re not employees so no-one needs to care about us.” 

Going for a McDonald’s is not seen as shameful by most people, even in foodie circles where the genius of a Filet-o-Fish or Double Cheeseburger has been reclaimed. If you’re under 47 and grew up in the UK, McDonald’s has been here for your entire life. Its advertising has been relentless and perfectly targeted. For all the lifestyle-mag-tutting and the Sunday newspapers’ glossy magazines harping on about the ‘dangers’ of fast food, McDonald’s has retained its place as the cheap and easy treat you can promise a kid. It makes it easy to have birthday parties at the restaurants and once it’s got you as a child, you’ve been hooked for life. McDonald’s lives and dies by nostalgia. Catching children now is just part of that. The Jesuits said, “Give me the child until he’s seven and I will give you the man”. McDonald’s says, “get a kid hooked on Happy Meals when they’re seven and I will give you the grown-up feasting on Chicken Selects.” 

McDonald’s is kiddie food for children of all ages. Everything is a little bit sweet and all the flavours are jacked up and unsubtle. That’s why we keep going. It satisfies a craving and has been working on building that craving in many of us since childhood. A Big Mac in the UK is the same as a Big Mac anywhere in the world. McDonald’s is a safe harbour for the culinarily confused and cautious. The Golden Arches rise up in any landscape like an oasis — you know that they are home to at least one thing you will eat and that it will arrive just as you expect it to be presented. On a more basic level, McDonald’s restaurants are often the only place with clean and easily accessible public toilets. That they also have fast and free wi-fi makes them a kind of embassy for anyone who is all-at-sea in a town or city. 

The morality of devouring a Big Mac will never be simple. We love McDonald’s – and feel free not to email me if you don’t (I understand why, trust me) – because we have been radicalised by Ronald McDonald. He’s up there with Pennywise in the list of clowns that have had sinister effects on childhood. But ironically or nostalgically eating McDonald’s is not better than having to rely on less costly food because that’s your only option – in both cases the money goes to McDonald’s. At my most broke, the McDonald’s PoundSaver menu kept eating something as a treat within reach. Those of us who choose to eat McDonald’s have to be conscious of the machine that makes it and the workers who keep that machine running. That means being aware of why the McStrike campaign exists, supporting its aims, and also raising our voices to demand better conditions for workers at every point in McDonald’s long and complicated supply chain – from farm workers to delivery drivers. It may be a machine, but we don’t have to be just one more McCog in it.

Mic Wright is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics for outlets including The New Statesman, GQ and MEL Magazine. You can find him on Twitter and on his newsletter Conquest of the Useless. Mic was paid for this newsletter.

The illustration was done by Alia Wilhelm, a collage artist and illustrator based in London. She also runs the website Nearness, which curates handmade artwork and thoughtful writing related to the pandemic. You can find more of her work on her website and Instagram. Alia was paid for her work.