What is the most underrated fast food chain

Fast food chains in the ethics test

Looked behind the facade
  • Nine domestic and foreign fast food chains put to the test
  • Popular with young and old, but heavily criticized
  • First signs of improvement

Fast food has not just been around since McDonald’s. Having quickly prepared or ready-to-eat meals served at the Budel and eating them almost as quickly - this is how our grandfathers satisfied their hunger. Only back then it was called “fast food”.

Many things fall under the term fast food

And of course it is not just hamburgers or meat bars that are suitable as fast food. It can also be sausages, french fries, sandwiches, pizza slices or a schnitzel, which are brought to the man or woman at a wide variety of sales locations.

Popular and criticized

All of these dishes have two things in common: they are very popular with the population, and they are viewed very critically by nutritionists, but also by parents (as long as their children are concerned), because they usually contain too much fat and salt and contain too few nutrients.

A way of life for young people

There is, however, a difference between fast food, which has triumphed around the world in the past 20 years, and the conventional stand-up snack. With the advent of American fast food chains, the filling function of food is no longer the main motivation for going to a pub. Fast food is an integral part of their lifestyle, especially for young people. As the youth researcher Jürgen Raithel notes in a recently published finding: Eating without cutlery and crockery, largely dispensing with table manners and etiquette offers the opportunity to demarcate yourself from the adult world.

Massive criticism

On the other hand, fast food chains are also subject to vehement criticism. Many see it as the decline of the food culture or ruinous competition for local gastronomy - allegations that can hardly be substantiated. But there is also solid criticism that can come up with facts and figures. It is aimed primarily at the market leader: "They say McDonald’s, but actually mean the entire fast food industry" (Klaus Werner, co-author of "Schwarzbuch Markenf Firmen"). That is only apparently unfair, because the meat label company from Illinois has really done everything to make its logo (the "Golden Arches") one of the most famous on the globe. And it also makes sense: because when the market leader reacts to public displeasure, its competitors also come under pressure; sooner or later they have to follow suit.

Libel lawsuits against critics

In the past, McDonald’s regularly used defamation suits against its critics. The most spectacular case concerned two activists from a London protest organization, who in a flyer accused McDonald's of pretty much anything imaginable in terms of social or ecological wrongdoing: deforestation of the rainforest, poverty in the Third World, cruelty to animals, waste production, harmful health, poor working conditions and Abusive Advertising. Most of the time, such complaints end with a settlement, quite simply because the critics cannot afford costly litigation. The two persisted, however, and after a long trial, the affair ended in 1999 with an only partial conviction: only allegations of food poisoning, cancer and world poverty were qualified as unproven.


McDonald’s declared itself the winner, but not only the British daily “Guardian” said: “Since Pyrrhus, no winner has looked so old”. Indeed, the process has given the critics a level of publicity that they would otherwise never have been able to achieve. The controversial leaflet and the entire trial protocol were distributed all over the world via the Internet, and the website www.mcspotlight.org is said to have been clicked 65 million times (up to the year 2000 alone).

Corporations capable of learning

It may have been this experience that made McDonald’s rethink. Even bitter opponents attest the group a certain ability to learn. Instead of taking legal action against critics, one tries to enter into dialogue with them and to cooperate; Instead of sweeping unpleasant topics under the carpet, you go on the offensive and integrate the topic of ethics into your marketing strategy.

"Social Responsibility Report"

The first “Social Responsibility Report” was published around a year ago. In it, the group wants to prove that social responsibility is not just a catchphrase for it. The report pays a lot of attention to supporting charitable projects. In the more than 200 “Ronald McDonald Houses”, relatives of seriously ill children can stay in the immediate vicinity of the hospital for the duration of the treatment.

This is far too little for the unions. The international food workers' union IUF complains that social responsibility is mainly limited to charitable activities, while employees are deprived of fundamental rights. The word “union” was never mentioned in the entire social report.

Success for animal rights activists

The situation in Austria is assessed somewhat better. Union members are not uncommon in McDonald’s branches, and the collective wages are adhered to. However, this only applies to the company's own branches. Even McDonald’s itself does not want to know what is going on in the franchise operations: "We do not have the facilities to collect information about it," the social report states in advance. 90 percent of McDonald’s locations in Austria are run by franchisees. In doing so, the group is relieving a large part of its responsibility.

Factory farming

Meat dishes in large quantities and at comparatively low prices, as offered by fast food chains, cause factory farming with the familiar problems: animals are crammed together in a very small space for their entire life until they are painfully transported to the slaughterhouse and slaughtered there in piecework. Now the animal rights activists seem to have achieved a remarkable success. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the organization that became famous in Austria through the visit of PETA activist Pamela Anderson at the last opera ball, has made the fast food chains responsible. First, McDonald’s agreed to meet minimum requirements, later also Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken; this includes unannounced inspections in the slaughterhouses, effective stunning methods or more living space for chickens in battery cages.

Animal welfare regulations

This agreement only applies to the USA, but the example could also set a precedent in Europe. Efforts are being made to this end: The nationwide animal welfare regulations planned in Austria also provide for the slaughterhouses to be checked by independent organizations.

Criticism from animal rights activists

In any case, the current situation is heavily criticized by all animal rights activists. For example, McDonald’s assertion that they only use Austrian beef is irrelevant to them. According to the well-known animal rights activist Franz-Joseph Plank from "Animal Spirit", the conditions in the domestic farms are not fundamentally different from the notorious animal factories in Denmark or the Netherlands. The only plus that animal rights activists can think of about McDonald’s Austria: the purchase of free-range eggs.

McDonald's clearly better than the competition

As critical as the assessment of the fast food giant is, it does significantly better than its direct and indirect competition. Of the US chains that are active in Austria, none other took part in our investigation at all. Burger King, Subway and Pizza Hut preferred not to be associated with ethics. The German North Sea company also remained silent. Of the local chains, only Wiener Schnitzelplatz’l refused. The justification varied: one gave reasons for data protection, another regretted not having time to fill out a questionnaire, so you should get in touch next year.

Little attention for ethics

However, a look at their websites shows that those concerned actually have little to say about ethics. This is by no means an issue on the respective Austria homepage; but also the international sites (.com) offer precious little. Not a word on the North Sea, a little sponsorship at Subway, at Burger King and Pizza Hut the problem (animal welfare) is addressed a little more. The fact that the Austrian fast food chains (which are much smaller and not internationally oriented) do not dedicate a site to this topic is therefore not surprising. McDonald’s is alone with its social report published on the Internet.

Ethics ranking

In our ethics rating, the market leader is clearly ahead. Around 65 percent of the criteria are met. The environmental sector in particular has a positive impact. The group has gotten rid of its former throwaway image through ambitious recycling measures (keyword: environmentally friendly packaging). It looks much worse in social matters. The 44 percent shown only apply to the company's own employees. How the employees in the franchise operations are doing is not reflected in our rating system - we shouldn't forget that.

Three domestic fast food providers also took part in the survey and, as expected, could not keep up with the experienced global corporation. Ecological and social measures are carried out in isolation, there are no overarching objectives and no corresponding management system. The closest thing to the US group was Pizza Mann with 39 percent; in the environmental sector, the company was able to achieve 60 percent of the possible points.

Table: Fast Food Chains; What customers should know

Table: Fast food chains in the ethics test

How healthy is fast food?

Light variant. Fast food is usually high in fat, protein, and salt. Its nutritional value is often underestimated. A popular combination, Big Mac - French fries - Cola, is no longer a snack, but corresponds to a hearty main meal with a good 1000 calories. But not all fast food is the same as fast food. A simple hamburger with salad and a glass of orange juice would be healthier and only half as energetic. The same applies to schnitzel, pizza or sandwich: high-calorie food can be enriched with vitamin-rich side dishes. Fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products would be best.

Forgivable sins. Every now and then you can treat yourself to a calorie bomb, provided that you otherwise pay attention to a balanced diet. This also applies to children. Bans mostly have the opposite effect; better integrate your “favorite food” into the menu: do not put anything hearty in front of you on the same day, but rather a pasta with vegetable sauce or wholemeal bread with cheese and fruit, for example.

Lesson learned. McDonald’s has learned from the campaigns against him and is now most ready to take on social responsibility. Three Austrian chains follow at a great distance. For other global corporations (Burger King, Pizza Hut ...) ethics is still a foreign word.

Ask questions. Large corporations in particular react to public pressure. Everyone can contribute to this - for example by asking those responsible unpleasant questions (Internet addresses in the table “What customers should know”).

Calorie bombs. A menu in a fast food establishment - main meal, side dish, drink - can have more calories than a main meal. And it's not exactly cheap either: you have to reckon with up to 12 euros.

That's how we tested

The survey was carried out by the VKI in January / February 2003. The core of the investigation is a survey of the companies, supplemented by written documents from the company, market research, discussions with company representatives and interest groups as well as mystery calls.

The criteria are divided into three areas and have been weighted according to their importance; was assessed according to the degree to which the (weighted) criteria were met, with a maximum of 100 percent. The overall rating results from the arithmetic mean of the three areas; it is also presented in a four-level ethical rating.

The following areas were surveyed (exemplary):

  • Environment: Environmental management, reduction of the consumption of water, waste water, energy, reduction of the emission of pollutants, reduction of packaging waste.
  • Social: Works council, measures to secure employment, health-promoting and family-friendly offers for employees, apprenticeship training, promotion of women, promotion of the disabled, compliance with international social standards in the procurement of goods or preliminary products.
  • Information openness: Publication of business reports, environmental reports and social reports, website analysis, willingness to provide information on inquiries, quality assurance, access to information, contact with interest groups (environmental associations, NGOs, consumer organizations).