- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

McDonald’s has been sued over burning coffee, blazing pickles, scalding tea and hot water in courtrooms around the world.

They have been threatened by vegetarians, environmental groups, homosexual rights advocates, obese children and most recently, a 420-pound man who says McDonald’s wouldn’t hire him because he was, well, 420 pounds.

Now the Golden Arches is striking back, and with gusto.

McDonald’s regional headquarters in Italy is suing a fancy food critic for $25 million, saying his review of its cuisine hurt business.

“It takes a big effort to imagine this food as healthy,” wrote Edoardo Raspelli in the Italian newspaper La Stampa in December.

“The ambience was mechanical, the potatoes were obscene and tasting of cardboard, and the bread poor. I found it alienating and vulgar,” he continued, adding that McDonald’s signature Big Mac hamburger is nothing more than “fodder” and that the restaurant “symbolized oppression of the palate.”

Mr. Raspelli is the author of a dozen cookbooks and a proponent of the “slow food” movement, an Italian-based, antiglobilization group founded in 1989 by European restaurateurs and chefs who want the continent to return to its heritage of gracious dining.

McDonald’s thought it was gracious enough, apparently. On Wednesday McDonald’s attorney Allesandro Facchino appeared in a Milan courtroom to mount a defamation lawsuit against the food writer.

“What he said harmed my client’s reputation, and it is completely false,” Mr. Facchino told the court in a preliminary hearing. “We have the proof that McDonald’s uses nothing but the finest ingredients, and we will go through this point by point.”

The 230 McDonald’s restaurants in Italy, which employ 10,000 people, are perhaps a bit fancier than those on the turnpike. Their dishes include a local fiordiriso salad with rice and tuna, and a McMusic outlet in Naples features a Dolby surround-sound system, a music-video screen and sculptures.

But Mr. Raspelli says he was doing his job.

“I wrote what I thought about the fast-food kitchen. I find it repellent. But I have insulted nobody,” he countered, comparing his McDonald’s dining experience to filling up at a gas station. “I cite my right to make food criticism.”

The exchange assumed dramatic proportions in Italian press accounts. One La Stampa reporter deemed it the “search for truth about the colossus of hamburgers” and the “imperial hamburger vs. a symbol of eating ‘slow.’”

McDonald’s central command is staying out of the affair.

“This involves our brand. But it’s not something we’re going to follow here,” said spokeswoman Sheila Young from McDonald’s Corp. headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. “We are just so decentralized. We let the folks in international locations handle their own regional affairs.”

McDonald’s operates 30,000 restaurants in 121 countries, though some operations have been scaled back after the company took its first quarterly financial loss last year.

Preaching “faith and patience,” Chief Executive Officer James Cantalupo recently announced that McDonald’s posted a $327 million profit for the first quarter this year. But the fast-food chain has been vexed with cultural woes.

McDonald’s has become the target of anti-American boycotts in Europe and elsewhere among those who see it as a symbol of “Yankee greed” or a threat to local culture.

The war in Iraq has exacerbated ill will. German protesters of the war in Iraq carried banners earlier this year reading, “McDonald’s sells Happy Meals to finance the war.” Antiwar protestors in London destroyed a McDonald’s site during a May Day demonstration.

McDonald’s locations in Turkey, Lebanon and Indonesia were targeted in bomb attacks by anti-Western groups in recent months.

The Italian courts will deliberate the honor of McDonald’s, according to press accounts this week. The company, however, scored a recent victory of sorts.

McDonald’s became an official sponsor of Pope John Paul II, providing food for a multitude: the 500,000 faithful Spaniards who showed up for a May 21 “pray-in” with the pope at a Madrid airport.

Believers received a “pilgrim’s bag,” with rosary, prayer book, cap and vouchers for burger, fries, soft drink and a baked apple pie.

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