November 24, 2005 10:06 pm

Fast-food giant lifts the lid on its culture

McDonald’s “does not value its employees, it is more concerned with its shareholders”. “Working at McDonald’s doesn’t look like much fun.” “How can McDonald’s food form part of a balanced diet?”

These comments might be picked from any website set up by anti-McDonald’s activists. In fact, they form a central part of a report to be published by the fast-food chain itself in Europe next week.

In its first European corporate responsibility report, the company openly addresses issues of concern in the region: obesity, menu choice, food quality and safety, marketing practices, and working conditions in its 6,200 restaurants.

The quotes, both negative and positive, have been gleaned from more than a year of discussions with stakeholders and opinion-formers, including nutritionists, policy-makers, NGOs and journalists.

“Although McDonald’s does not necessarily agree with the views expressed in these quotes…we feel it is important for us to try to address them,” the report says. This marks a change of culture, as the report makes clear. Indeed, publication took longer than intended because McDonald’s Europe had to ensure that senior management in the US and Europe was comfortable with greater transparency in addressing criticism.

Richard Donkin, a free-lance journalist and author who took part in the stakeholder sessions, says: “I think they’d really been shaken up by Morgan Spurlock’s film, Super Size Me, and the understanding that selling high-fat fast food probably had a limited life span. Attitudes were changing...and what were they going to do about it?”

Mr Donkin, who writes the FT’s recruitment column, says McDonald’s was open to feedback and anxious to change. “There were no taboo areas,” he says. “It’s not just ‘greenwash’. This is root-and-branch stuff.”

The report acknowledges the company was not responsive enough to changing customer habits but says it has become more proactive in the past two years.

McDonald’s says it is an active member of nutrition bodies such as the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, launched in March.

Pointing out that food and drink companies that promote physical exercise have been accused of doing so to avoid having to change their own product, it says: “McDonald’s has decided to act on both sides of the energy balance – calories in and calories out.”

On conditions for the 278,000 workers in Europe, the report says it is addressing concerns about excessively pressurised jobs by focusing on “optimal restaurant staffing”, menu simplification and promotion of workplace respect and value.

The report is light on statistics such as staff turnover rates. Richard Johnson, head of corporate affairs for McDonald’s Europe, says more figures will be included in future but central data collection needs to improve.

Some 62 per cent of the European restaurants are owned and operated by independent franchisees, and the company admits it is up to them to put into practice the common standards it sets on staffing and training.

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