Ronald McDonald feels the pricks of his conscience

McDonald’s can’t win – it comes up with a universally loved product, and all it gets is lawsuits, vilification and dead insectivores in its ice cream tubs. By Iain Murray

Have you noticed how McDonald’s has become the corporate equivalent of tobacco? Despite their millions of adherents, both are universally despised and held to blame for almost all known afflictions and calamities. Tobacco has been identified as the cause of everything from underweight infants to impotence, while McDonald’s, as the paramount symbol of hated globalisation, has been accused of denuding rainforests, making people fat, using packaging of an unacceptably non-biodegradable variety and murdering hedgehogs.

McDonald’s enemies are both numerous and odd. They would love to rewind civilisation and return us to a rural Arcady in which, free of global warming or indeed warming of any kind, hunter-gathers would go a-hunting and a-gathering, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. (It should be made clear that “hunting” in this context means “looking for”, not “pursuing with malevolent intent” – so it is perfectly possible both to hunt and gather berries, always assuming of course that berries do not have finer feelings, in which case the policy may have to be rethought). Since it is its function to make and sell hamburgers, there is little McDonald’s can do to foster the recreation of prelapsarian man. But no one can accuse it of failing to accommodate its critics in ways that do lie within its power. In response to lawsuits in the US, alleging that the company is responsible for chronic obesity in those who consume hamburgers by the dozen, McDonald’s is to reduce the fat content in its fries. Closer to home, it is taking steps to prevent hedgehogs from meeting a grisly death.

Earlier this year, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society – which has 11,000 members and is based in Ludlow, Shropshire – said it had received up to 50 calls from members reporting dead or dying hedgehogs in the previous 18 months. In every case, the victims were discovered with their snouts stuck in a carton of McDonald’s McFlurry ice cream. Having ruled out assault, forensic teams concluded that hedgehogs were attracted to the cartons by the smell of the ice cream dregs. However, once they stuck their heads through the hole in the dome-shaped lids, their prickles prevented them from getting out again. There was only one obvious suspect for what appeared to be a motiveless serial killing. Identikit pictures were issued of a man with a chalk-white face and a mop of red hair, wearing huge boots, red and white striped sleeves and socks and a yellow jumpsuit. He was described as a master of disguise, and posters warned: “If you see this man, don’t have a go”. Wise advice. After all, the suspect had form, as millions of fat American victims could testify.

Eventually, acting on information received, investigators found Ronald McDonald working as a lecturer at the University of Hamburgerology in East Finchley. At first he denied everything. It was not him, he protested, but his suppliers. A spokesman said: “We have taken this issue seriously and asked our suppliers to investigate the matter. A suitable alternative solution has not yet been found, however we are currently reviewing this.”

McDonald’s was true to its word. Last week, the company said it was planning to issue “hedgehog-friendly” ice cream cups to prevent the animals becoming trapped inside them. The burger chain said it would pilot a new design for the containers at selected restaurants from October.

This story is at once depressing and heartening. It is depressing to be reminded that large numbers of modern, go-ahead Britons eat their meals in the streets and lanes of this England and throw away what they no longer want in the gutters, gardens and hedgerows. Heartening to learn that ours is a nation in which such eccentric bodies as the British Hedgehog Preservation Society flourish. It is the mark of civilised country that no fewer than 11,000 people voluntarily devote themselves to ensuring the survival of a native mammal whose only known natural predator is the car.

As for McDonald’s, it cannot win. Hedgehog-friendly ice cream cups notwithstanding, it will continue to be seen by many as the epitome of US cultural imperialism, a capitalist monster bent on global hegemony. Listen to its enemies and you will learn that no corner of the planet is safe from its glutinous invasion. No matter where the lonely traveller may stray, in trackless desert or lush forest, to high peak or bottomless canyon, McDonald’s will have got there first. To be so reviled is the reward for an unparalleled marketing success. Is it not truly amazing that a product which, let’s face it, is not particularly appetising or even a good example of its kind, wins enthusiastic consumers wherever it goes? The inuit on his floe, the bedouin on his hump, the gaucho on the pampas, the sherpa on the scree, all salivate with fluency at the thought of a quarter pounder with cheese. To have discovered the universal delicacy and to be hated for it is a peculiar and salutary fate.

As for the hedgehogs – according to a survey by the Mammals Trust UK and Joint Nature Conservation Committee – they could be extinct in Britain within a decade. The culprits? Intensified farming methods, which destroy their habitat, and pesticides, which kill their food supply. That McDonald’s escapes censure is purely fortuitous.

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