McDonald’s Ethical Challenges

Michael A. Hartmann

McDonald’s Ethical Challenges


McDonald’s Ethical Challenges


The McDonald’s Corporation has been beleaguered for their questionable business practices and ethics. Opponents claim that the corporation aggressively advertises low nutritional food products to children. Challengers also claim that the food is also causes health problems for children and adults as well. These ethical issues have placed the corporation in the spotlight as a representative of fast food restaurant industry. McDonald’s has escaped civil lawsuits thus far. However, the company has been unable to break away from ongoing criticism concerning the integrity within its social responsibility practices.


Fast food restaurants have become a popular target of criticism by marketing opponents (Raeburn, 2002). Studies show that near half of the money spent on food by Americans is for eating out. This is estimated to generate over 100 billion dollars income each year for restaurants in the United States. These studies also further conclude that each day at least 25% of America visits a fast-food chain (Appleson, 2003). Fast food has also seen a rise in distribution in the public school system. In the mid 1990’s, 13% of schools served fast food in schools. This has been an issue with nutritionists because the fast food being served lacks the nutritional value that conventional school food does (Raeburn, 2002).

In recent years, The McDonald’s Corporation has been frequently challenged as the leading source of the controversy surrounding marketing food to children (Raeburn, 2002). The corporation reportedly spends two billion dollars each year on advertising. The company also targets children by using promotional tools such as toys, school programs, school team sponsorships, and figures such as Ronald McDonald (McSpotlight, n.d.). To their credit, McDonald’s raised an estimated $15-20 million in 2002 to sponsor World Children’s Day. This is in addition to the 300 million dollars raised to their Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC). The corporation claims that these funds are to improve the heath of children around the world (McDonald’s Corporation, 2002).

While their marketing techniques are being criticized, it is the lack of nutritional value that has generated most of the concerns. Fast food rarely meets USDA nutritional guidelines and is high in fats. Today’s super sized menu items have tripled the amount of calories in an order of french-fries that were ordered in the 1960’s (Raeburn, 2002). Typically a person could consume 900 calories in the super-sized soda and french-fries alone (Bird, 1998).

McDonald’s has defended these claims by launching a campaign that also uses information from health experts and nutritionist. McDonald’s has stated that eating habits are just a single element involved in obesity. They state that additional elements such as genetics, exercise, cultural issues, economic, and over-eating contribute to obesity as well. The corporation further states, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), that it is unhealthy to eliminate an individual’s favorite food from their diet (McDonald’s Corporation, n.d.). The company further claims, “Many nutrition professionals agree that McDonald’s food can be part of a healthy diet based on the sound nutrition principles of balance, variety and moderation (McDonald’s Corporation, p. 1). McDonald’s also states that there are heaps of alternative foods found in their menu such as salads (Raeburn, 2002). According to the fast food company, it has been providing nutritional information on their menu items for over 25 years (McDonald’s Corporation, n.d.). Under pressure, the company announced in 2002 that it was adding yogurt and a sweetened fruit menu for children. However McDonald’s opted not to accept any responsibility for health problems but to shift blame to other sources (Raeburn, 2002).

Furthermore, McDonald’s has designated a few restaurants to partnership with the Eat Well Play Hard (EWPH) program in New York State. The goals of the EWPH are to prevent obesity in children and reduce the likelihood of chronic diseases through a proper diet and exercise. EWPH selected McDonald’s because of their successful marketing strategies to children. Under a three month promotional period, McDonald’s offered an alternative Happy Meal Plus to the menu that was the same price as the standard Happy Meal. The Happy Meal Plus contained the same food as the Happy Meal but included a cup of fruit. The soda was replaced by the choice of a low-fat milk, low-fat chocolate milk or low-fat frozen yogurt parfait. The conventional Happy Meal toy was replaced with an item that would bring about a child to do physical activity such as a jump rope, Frisbee, or beach ball. Surveys given to the customers indicated that 90% thought that the Happy Meal Plus was pleasant and would purchase it again (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2002).

A landmark lawsuit filed against McDonald’s was dismissed in a US District Court in January 2003 (Appleson, 2003). A lawyer was suing on behalf of several teens that blame their obesity on food consumed from the franchise. The lawsuit further claimed that the company deliberately misled customers in regards to the nutritional value of their foods and did not warn customers of the health risks from eating them (BBC News, 2002). This case has been coined as the “McLibel” case (McSpotlight, n.d.). One of the plaintiffs was a 400 pound 15 year old boy that testified that he obtained diabetes and this weight gain because of the restaurant chain. The boy claimed that he ate at McDonald’s everyday since he was six (Appleson, 2003). His mother claimed that she had always believed that McDonald’s fast food was healthy for her son (BBC News, 2002).

The lawyer for McDonald’s claimed that the suit should be considered frivolous. He pointed out that McDonald’s has been providing data on their menu items to the public for many years. The lawyer went on to say that the fast food giant has nothing to hide and the public has a full understanding of the nutritional value of fast food (BBC News, 2002). The judge agreed with McDonald’s on these points and ruled that he did not find evidence that the company was intentionally misleading customers (Appleson, 2003).

Although the judge dismissed the case, he scolded the company on their cooking and processing methods. He further warned McDonald’s the plaintiffs could re-file their case if evidence can be obtained regarding the processing methods of their products (Appleson, 2003). Future lawsuits are expected and other fast food chains are concerned that if a lawsuit against McDonald’s similar to this is successful that they might also be held liable in future cases (BBC News, 2002). Other experts believe that the fast food companies should be partially held accountable for obesity and diabetes in the same fashion that cigarette companies were to nicotine addiction and lung cancer (Bird, 1998). Many nutritionists and attorneys believe that food companies should be held responsible for some of the estimated 117 billion dollars spent on obesity related illnesses (Raeburn, 2002).

In response to prevent a rash of lawsuits, the US Congress has introduced the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act. This legislation would limit lawsuits against restaurant chains to cases where the companies fail to meet regulatory requirements (Supermarket Guru, 2003).

False Advertising

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 30,000 or more premature heart disease deaths are caused each year by Trans Fatty Acids (TFA) from partially hydrogenated oils in our food supply. In response to these concerns, in September 2002, McDonald’s issued a Press Release that announced a significant reduction of TFAs with improved cooking oil. The new oil was said to reduce French fry TFA levels by 48%, reduce saturated fat by 16% and dramatically increase polyunsaturated fat by 167%. However McDonald’s never committed to the change. Later the company removed the September 2002 Press Release from its website and according to challengers, McDonald’s attempted to hide the existence of the declaration (PRWeb, 2004).

In January 2004,, Inc., A California non-profit organization filed a lawsuit against McDonalds Corporation for false advertising regarding its announcement they would implement a change to new cooking oil by February 2003. The plaintiffs claim that McDonald’s lied about this change, and they have not complied by the announcement. The plaintiffs’ further claim that McDonalds never made the change to the new cooking oil, and made no announcement to the public that they had not made this change. They accuse the company of false advertising, misleading the public and not taking the health of others seriously for profit. In the lawsuit, the accusers are asking for an order for McDonalds to inform the public about failure to use the cooking oil, with the same degree of publicity as they gave in September 2002. This lawsuit is still pending (PRWeb, 2004).

Super Size Me

McDonald’s has also received negative publicity about their food quality from filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock. Morgan Spurlock is an award-winning writer, director and producer. Spurlock directed a documentary about McDonalds that was entitled “Super Size Me.” During the making of the film, which is an examination of fast food and obesity in America, Spurlock subjected himself to a grueling, 30-day “McDonald’s only” diet to document the impact on his health. He started out at a healthy 185 pounds and had packed on 25 pounds by the end of the diet. Within a few days of launching his diet, Spurlock, was depicted as vomiting out the window of his car, and doctors who examined him were claimed to be shocked at how rapidly Spurlock’s entire body deteriorated. Moreover, it is professed that his liver became toxic, his cholesterol shot up from a low 165 to 230, and he stated that his libido declined and he suffered headaches and depression (Keppler Associates, 2004).

On March 3, 2004, McDonald’s announced that by the end of 2004, the Super size option will no longer be available in the United States apart from in certain promotions. The company claims that the option was eliminated as part of an endeavor to simplify its menu and give customers selections that support a balanced lifestyle. McDonald’s claimed that the Spurlock movie was not a factor in the menu change. A company spokesman rebuffed the movie and referred to the movie as “a super-sized distortion of the quality, choice and variety available at McDonald’s.” (CNN, 2004)


McDonald’s business ethics and integrity has come into the spotlight. The company has yet to demonstrate genuine endeavors to change their marketing techniques or their questionable food products. Although McDonald’s has escaped lawsuits in the past, however, they may be held liable for some of the health issues surrounding their products such as obesity and diabetes. The corporation consistently avoids any accountability and attempts to shift blame to other sources of unhealthy factors that contribute to diabetes and obesity. McDonald’s has to find a balance between attaining good profits and producing healthy food. Until then, the company must prove that they are indeed making changes and being perceived as being more socially responsible.


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CNN (2004). McSupersizes to be phased out. Retrieved March 3, 2004, from
Keppler Associates (2004). Morgan Spurlock. Retrieved February 28, 2004, from
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©2018 Michael A. Hartmann

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