We all have our fantasy headlines - the announcement of events of global or national significance that chime irresistibly with our own personal values and ambitions. "Texas oil reserves found to be unlimited" would probably be George Bush's. Though I suppose it might be trumped by "WMDs found in Iraq - and Iran".
Well, I almost got to see one of mine this week. "McDonald's goes bust!" - that would have been the undiluted, full-fat, maximum-caffeine version. In truth the news isn't quite that spectacular. But it's pretty brilliant all the same: "McDonald's to close 25 stores in the UK". Yes! For me, and no doubt others who share my loathing of this huge ugly lump of global corporate muscle, this is an air-punching moment. All morning after I heard, I was wandering about in daze of delighted disbelief. And when I'd done with the air-punching, I went for the double forearm salute, shouting "YES!" again, through clenched teeth, to my two clenched fists. A childish reaction, perhaps, but schadenfreude is primordial stuff. And the bigger the beast that's fallen, the greater the glee. In short, I'm lovin' it!
At last, it seems that McDonald's is losing its hitherto stellar domination of the vast fast-food market in this country. This is not a regional or temporary blip, or a mere tactical realignment. They really are in trouble. Their poor performance in Britain dragged profit margins from McDonald's European company-owned restaurants down to 14.9% of sales last year - from 15.6% in 2004. No new openings are planned for the coming year. Even McDonald's European boss, Denis Hennequin, is struggling to put a happy face on the situation: "The UK has been in negative territory for a couple of years now," he admitted. "The brand 15 years ago was very trendy and modern. It is now tired."
This is dramatic stuff. It was only a few years ago that the march of the Golden Arches seemed inexorable. As recently as 2002, we heard that four new stores were opening somewhere on the planet every day. McDonald's were able to buy the endorsement of any global superstar they felt might enhance their brand. Their supremely aggressive advertising, coupled with relentless merchandising tie-ins with Hollywood blockbuster kids' movies, gave them untold power over the minds, and consequently stomachs, of our kids. They had seemed, for a couple of decades, literally unstoppable. The halting of such a seemingly irresistible force is no mean feat. It smacks of revolution. And as we celebrate (dancing in the high street may not be excessive) we should ask: how has this been brought about?
There's no doubt in my mind that the guests of honour at the big McClosure bash should be Morgan Spurlock, maker of the documentary Super Size Me, and Helen Steel and Dave Morris of the McLibel trial, now reworked into a stunning feature documentary. (Incidentally, I think Jamie Oliver deserves a few popped corks, too. McDonald's were not the focus of his school dinners campaign. But they must have suffered by implication. In the end it is easier for concerned parents to steer their children clear of the Golden Arches than it is for schools to reinvent the greasy wheel of the school canteen. Of course we all want this to happen, and parental pressure is the only way it will. But it makes sense for parents to put at least some of their money where their mouths are. In other words, for Turkey Twizzlers read Chicken McNuggets throughout.)
As McDonald's themselves have known for a long time, entertainment is one of the most powerful marketing tools there is - hence Ronald McDonald, and every merchandising deal they have ever done. So to see entertainment used as a weapon against them has been especially satisfying. The two McMovies between them have certainly done a magnificent job of exposing McDonald's as a horrendous corporate bully, and a peddler of nutritionally bankrupt junk.
But much more importantly than that, for my money, is the way they have encouraged us no longer either to fear McDonald's or to genuflect to their supremacy, but to laugh at them. The best piece of pure farce to emerge from the McLibel trial was the revelation that McDonald's had hired at least four private detectives to infiltrate the London Greenpeace campaign group. What's more, not all the investigators were made aware of each other's existence. They therefore ended up wasting fantastic amounts of their time and McDonald's money investigating each other.
Super Size Me, as well as being a sizzling indictment of the devastating effect of the McDonald's diet on the human body, is also a very funny film. And some of its humour is of the gross-out variety so beloved of a teenage audience - Spurlock vomiting up his supersized Happy Meal before he even gets out of the drive-in is practically a Farrelly brothers moment.
Almost as funny as the sight of McDonald's floundering public image is the sight of them trying to do something about it. In their desperate effort to reinvent themselves as a "healthy option" McD's are doing a grand job of making themselves look ridiculous.
They may for decades have been frighteningly brilliant at selling burgers and fries, but they have, for the past year or so, revealed themselves to be comically bad at selling salads and fruit. According to reports in America, some of their salad meals, once topped with the gunk they call a dressing, contain as much fat as a quarter-pounder with cheese plus a regular fries. If so, that is nothing short of appalling, but it is on balance still funnier than it is sad.
Everyone knows that the best way to disempower the playground bully is to make him a laughing stock. And this, joyfully, is what's starting to happen to McDonald's. This is apt, as it is in the playground that they are most vulnerable. Kids may be easy to reach and influence; showering them with gifts and attention, and glamorous associations with what is cool and happening in their world can be brutally effective. But kids can be ruthless, too, when the lustre of desirability starts to fade, in turning their backs on the people, the trends - the brands - they once loved. The most devastating news for McDonald's, and the thing they can do least about, is that they are becoming seriously uncool. A survey published last week revealed that Britain's teenagers are turning their backs on the Golden Arches in droves. Just 1% of 13- to 15-year-olds said McDonald's was their favourite meal, down 7% on a year ago.
We have more to relish here than the satisfying sight of Egg McMuffin on face. The point is not that fast-food culture is on the wane - far from it. In fact, the denting of McDonald's comes at a time when the takeaway sector generally continues to grow. But as it expands, it is also diversifying. These days, in the clusters of fast-food outlets in our major cities, we are starting to find, dotted among the big names in burgers, chicken and pizza, some genuine alternatives: the big-name coffee shops, of course, but also juice bars, sushi restaurants, fruit and nut stands, bagel bars, pasty parlours, soup and salad takeaways - and even the occasional organic burger joint. Of course, not all these new ventures are paragons of culinary virtue. Many leave a lot to be desired - some in their trading ethics, others for poor nutrition, or simply a lack of good taste. But it's none the less true that, taking the fast-food sector as a whole, the possibility of an encounter with what we might call "real food" is definitely on the up.
This is particularly encouraging, not because of any significant change in the sense of where we are now, as much as where we might get to in the not-too-distant future. The fast-food restaurant and takeaway sector has always been a magnet to entrepreneurs. There is clearly an increasing perception among such entrepreneurs that the mood and the opportunities in this sector are changing. In the newest, most innovative forays into fast-food - places such as Quiet Revolution, Eat, Love Juice, and Benugo's - there is an emphasis not only on healthy alternatives, but transparency, traceability and the provenance of ingredients.
It's tempting to ask, then, whether this is some kind of a tipping point in our food culture. Is it the beginning of the end of the domination of the mediocre, the mass produced and the homogenous? Is the tide of junk really turning? Are we as a nation, and is our youth in particular, becoming a little less susceptible to the remorseless clout of marketing megabucks? Are we at last beginning to ask what's really in our food, and question whether it should be there? Are we finally beginning to think and work out for ourselves how best to feed ourselves, what good food really is, and the part it can play in keeping us happy and healthy, and effective at work and play?
To answer a resounding yes would be a touch premature. It's hard to argue that the good food revolution has already achieved an unstoppable momentum, when there are still kids all over the country breakfasting on Coke, crisps and chocolate bars (and there are still schools selling them this crap in their own corridors). Figures on child obesity are still heading up. Most school meals are still are a nutritionally depleted, over-processed disgrace.
But we can at least say that some important messages are starting to get through. In the same survey that saw McDonald's popularity plummet among teenagers, only 12% of 800 comprehensive school students said they did not eat healthily and nearly half of the 13 to 15-year-olds said they ate fresh fruit and vegetables every day, an increase of 14% on last year. McDonald's becoming uncool is obviously a boost to any campaign for better, healthier eating. But the idea that fresh fruit and vegetables might actually become cool for kids is, in the long term, even more important - and exciting.
For me, the biggest boost to come from the news about McDonald's is the sense it gives of what changes might now be possible elsewhere in the food sector. It gives heart to other campaigns that strive to liberate our food culture from even more powerful corporate beasts.
The real stranglehold on our food culture comes not from the behemoth fast-food brands, but from the big four supermarkets: Tesco, Morrisons, Asda/Wal-Mart and Sainsbury's. Between them, they control 75% of the grocery market in the UK. There are hundreds of thousands of farmers and food producers, here and all over the world, selling groceries to tens of millions of British shoppers. Yet the growing, processing, distribution and sale of all that food is controlled by just four companies. That has to be unhealthy. If it wasn't for the tremendous diversity, commitment, passion and creativity that is, against all the odds, being preserved in the 25% of the market they do not yet control, you could say that the supermarkets own our food culture.
For me, then, the true tipping point will come when significant numbers of consumers begin to say to the supermarkets: enough of your bullying tactics to farmers and producers, your misleading labelling and spurious nutritional information, enough of the systematic suffering of livestock in intensive systems, driven by you, as you push the price points lower and lower, enough of your dirty, polluting, wasteful food miles, and your outrageous, undemocratic flouting of planning law and the opinions of local people.
The way to be effective is to change the way you shop. You don't have to stop going to supermarkets, but you do have to take from their shelves only those products you believe are honestly and ethically traded, transparently labelled, environmentally sustainable, and not abusive of either animals or people. And go elsewhere for the rest.
This is a lot to ask of the nation's shoppers, and until recently the possibility of bringing about genuine change in the dominant food retail culture seemed fanciful. Raising a groundswell of popular opinion to question the supermarkets' methods, their ethics and the true value of their contribution to our society felt like a hopeless task. But now, with Britain's unambiguous backlash against McDonald's giving hope to this campaign, nothing seems impossible. Things are already hotting up on the battleground. Will Tesco try to sue the Tescopoly activists and embarrass themselves, McLibel style, in the process? Will the Wal-Mart film, The High Cost of Low Price, prove to be the Super Size Me of supermarket culture, helping to deflate, and ultimately disarm another mighty corporate bully?
Let's hope so. Because if such once unimaginable events do occur, I might just get to see one of my other fantasy headlines: "Tesco in turmoil! Shoppers desert supermarkets for born-again high streets". www.rivercottage.net
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