- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

LONDON It looks as if fast food might be on the slide. Last month, McDonald's, after two dreadful years, warned once again that its profits for the second half of this year would be disappointing.
Jack Greenberg, the generally liked but no longer widely admired chairman and chief executive, said he didn't want "to mince words," but things didn't look good.
The share price instantly crashed 13 percent to a seven-year low. McDonald's shares have now lost 70 percent of their value since 1998, when Mr. Greenberg took over.
Sales in the United States, half the global total, were down, as well as in Britain and Germany, its two biggest European markets.
"Our marketing messages," Mr. Greenberg said, "did not resonate as well with consumers as we had hoped." Big Macs, in other words, have been staying on the shelves.
McDonald's has been selling $20 billion a year, well over twice anything its nearest rival, Burger King, can manage.
Also causing problems for McDonald's is BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, popularly known as "mad cow disease"] and hoof-and-mouth disease scares. The European cattle diseases have made beef more difficult to sell.
France's decision last week to end its six-year ban on British beef will take effect in about 10 days, Agence France-Presse quoted officials in Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's office as saying on Thursday.
Lifting the embargo requires publication of an order in the government gazette, and "the opening of the borders [to British beef] will take place a full day after the date of publication in the official gazette," one official said, suggesting it may be next weekend. Paris imposed the ban in 1996 amid fears of the spread of mad cow disease.
The decision brought France into line with the rest of the European Union, which removed its embargo on British beef in 1999.
In both America and Europe, the fast-food market has become increasingly full. Nevertheless, there are signs of a malaise that goes beyond market saturation and is about more than the evolution of a business. It may mark a change in the world's appetite and mentality.
After a bad year last year, McDonald's profits are now dropping in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific.
McDonald's Japan has avoided a slump only through deep price cuts.
Last year, the first drive-thru McDonald's was opened in India near the Taj Mahal but more significant was the attack by 500 enraged Hindus on a McDonald's in the suburbs of Bombay, ransacking the restaurant while another Bombay crowd smeared cow dung all over a statue of Ronald McDonald. All because they thought their french fries were being fried in beef tallow (which they weren't) and, for a Hindu, eating a cow is sacrilegious.
Other fast-food companies have been suffering, too. Burger King, which has been sold, Taco Bell and Wendy's have all had their problems.
For some, a kind of camouflage has been the only option. McDonald's outlets in Paris, which are thriving, are now unrecognizable. They have been made to look like French bistros, without a golden arch or a plastic chair in sight.
In Britain, McDonald's has bought Pret A Manger, a sandwich-bar chain trading on "real food," tasty not bland, and not mass produced everything that McDonald's does not represent. In America it has acquired Mexican, pizza and New England-themed chains with the same idea in mind. Sweden's McDonald's are now going organic, and the chief executive of McDonald's UK took a tour of Highgrove this summer.
It is not entirely clear why the world might be turning against fast food the surge of a global anti-Americanism is perhaps to blame but there may be a lesson here. The British farming industry, now suffering from difficult market conditions, and rather confusedly marching to the Foreign Ministry to complain, has been committed to the production of global commodity food for years.
About 3 percent of British food production is now organic, and perhaps another 10 percent goes into local value-added products, but that leaves more than 80 percent of British food production devoted to mass-market industrialized food, in which there is no connection between producer and consumer and where the governing factor is not quality, but price.
There are many ironies surrounding the farmers marching on London in defense of rural life two weeks ago, but this is one of the deepest.
For decades, the leaders of British agriculture have looked only to that global market. In sacking as many farm workers as they could in pursuit of "efficiency," they have exhibited a deep contempt for their local communities and have effectively destroyed much of the rural landscape on the way.
Their present predicament is a tragic sight, a huge agricultural system designed to produce food at a price that other countries can effortlessly undercut and that, increasingly, no one may want.
The farmers, and those setting agricultural policy, need to understand something that the other part of the Sept. 22 march was all about: the reinvigoration of local habits, local networks, local traditions and local ways of doing things to all of which they have long been indifferent.


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