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9 Biggest McDonald's Controversies of 2020

These scandals rocked the fast-food giant to its core.
FACT CHECKED BY Mura Dominko
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This has been one rough year for McDonald's, and not just because of the pandemic. The fast-food giant has been plagued with lawsuits brought by employees, franchisees, and investors over alleged improprieties, including racial discrimination and sexual misconduct. The company has also drawn its fair share of bad press relating to its menu items and related marketing strategies, as well as its supply chain.

Here are some of the biggest controversies McDonald's has been embroiled in this year.

Don't miss these 8 Grocery Items That May Soon Be in Short Supply.

1

Sex and the Seedy

Late last year, McDonald's fired its then-CEO, Steve Easterbrook, for cavorting (to put it politely) with a female employee. Easterbrook admitted his relationship with that employee reflected poor judgment. The company terminated Easterbrook "without cause," enabling Easterbrook to receive a generous severance package. The company appointed a new CEO, Chris Kempczinski, but all wasn't well just yet.

The day after Easterbrook's ouster, the head of human resources resigned amid rumors that he and Easterbrook had cultivated a corporate "party culture" involving booze-fueled outings at which high-level executives would drink heavily and sometimes ended up in compromising positions with staffers (more on the fallout from this below).

By August of 2020, McDonald's had learned of at least three more employees with whom Easterbrook had affairs, and that there were photos and emails backing up the claims. Furthermore, one of those employees had leveraged her sexual relationship with Eastabrook into a stock option award worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, which, from a legal standpoint, would mean that McDonald's was showing preferential treatment to employees who capitulated to the "macho guy" culture.

Oh, and did we mention that Easterbrook's severance package was worth more than $40 million? McDonald's has since sued Easterbrook for the return of the severance package, which the company claims it would never have agreed to had it known all the facts. And speaking of not knowing all the facts, in December, a group of investors called for the resignation of two members of the Board of Directors for "bungling" the initial investigation that led to the decision to pay Easterbrook severance, according to Bloomberg News.

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2

If You C-Suite Something . . .

In April, two McDonald's employees, on behalf of 5,000 others, sued the company for $500 million, alleging systemic sexual harassment in the form of "looking the other way" whenever employees made claims alleging inappropriate conduct—and even retaliating against employees for having complained at all.

"The company has known about it for years," one of the plaintiffs said in a statement, and the case appears to be ongoing.

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3

A Billion Little Lies

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In September 2020, McDonald's was sued by dozens of black former franchise owners claiming the company discriminated against them on the basis of race by deliberately placing them in "substandard locations" that hindered profits and growth. In November, civil rights attorney, Daryl Parks (you might recognize his name because he represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown), joined the law firm leading the legal battle and is expected to play an important role in the lawsuit going forward.

McDonald's is currently fighting the allegations, claiming it would never do such a thing because it has a vested interest in ensuring the success of all of its franchisees.

However, this is far from the only racial discrimination lawsuit the burger slinger is facing. Three black employees from a Lakeland, Fla. location may have had cause for suing McDonald's back in July for subjecting them to a "racially hostile work environment," and punishing them for raising complaints. And a similar lawsuit has been brought forth by employees from Rock Island, Ill.

4

An "impossible" situation

impossible vs beyond burger texture

When McDonald's announced it was entering the plant-based burger game with its own take on the increasingly ubiquitous meatless burger, the question on everyone's mind was: Who on earth is the chain's meatless burger supplier? McDonald's seemed to fuel the debate with ambiguous statements, including one it made in a Nov. 9 investor update presentation, which stated that the McPlant would be "crafted exclusively for McDonald's, by McDonald's."

Still weirder, McDonald's happens to be wellknown for not making its own foods. Adding to the drama is the fact that Beyond Meat (maker of Beyond Burgers), could have sworn it had just spent significant time and money co-creating the new McPlant patties. When Eat This, Not That! sought clarification from McDonald's, the company responded by referring us to the Nov. 9 investor update presentation. And round and round we go.

Learn how a plant-based diet can protect you from disease.

5

The Many McFlurry Mishaps

It's a tale worthy of a case study in an entry-level economics textbook: The popularity of the McFlurry is exceeded only by its unavailability. For reasons and excuses McDonald's customers couldn't actually care less about, McFlurry machines are notoriously finicky, and a good bit of the time, they don't work at all.

In 2017, McDonald's announced a major rollout of brand new machines that promised to be more reliable, but the status of that rollout remains unclear.  In October 2020, a group of franchisees got fed up waiting and formed a crack team to come up with a solution. Later that month, Eat This, Not That! reported that software company Kytch had created a device to act as a "soft-serve whisperer" of sorts. McDonald's has not adopted it, but some franchisees are employing it with some success.

Don't fall for these biggest myths about McDonald's.

6

Farewell, All-Day Breakfast, We Hardly Knew Ye

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While plenty of people skip breakfast, plenty of others are happy to eat breakfast foods at any time of day (just take a look at these 25 breakfast-for-dinner recipes and see if you're not tempted). To the delight of many, McDonald's began offering all-day breakfast in 2015. Now to their chagrin, McDonald's has taken it all away. In response to COVID-related issues facing restaurant operators, McDonald's put a temporary hold on McGriddles for dinner.

But it turns out the move wasn't so temporary at all. In June 2020, the National Owners Association (NOA), a group of about 80% franchised locations, voted against bringing the service back for the foreseeable future."The limited menu and ease of operations are allowing our teams to focus on providing blazing-fast service," Blake Casper, NOA's chairman said of the decision.

Steadfast all-day-breakfasters are in mourning, but there is some possibility that a neighborhood Mickey D's will go rogue and toss a hotcake on the griddle after 10:30 a.m., at least now and then.  Here is the entire McDonald's breakfast menu, ranked by a nutritionist.

7

The Million Dollar McNugget

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In September, a Florida man sued McDonald's for an injury he received while biting into a Chicken McNugget in May. Apparently, the McNugget contained a bone that was nearly an inch long. Hitting that bone with his teeth, the man experienced "unbearable jaw pain." A few days later, he discovered his affected tooth was cracked in two places. Last we heard, McDonald's was investigating, and the case was still pending.

8

Sketchy Soda

There is simply no way to sugar-coat this. McDonald's longtime soda supplier has been slipping money under the table to scientists in return for rewriting the toxic truth about sugar-sweetened beverages.

A paper published in August 2020 in the Public Health Nutrition journal revealed that Coca-Cola provided the funding for an "independent" study on factors contributing to America's obesity problem. Not surprisingly, that study blamed inadequate exercise for the obesity epidemic and minimized the role of sugar-sweetened beverages.

The paper also revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was involved in the fraud, citing evidence of communications between the agency and a former Coca-Cola executive regarding convincing the World Health Organization to promote the same message within the food industry. Here is the truth about what happens to your body after drinking soda.

9

The Coronavirus Kerfuffle

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In May, five McDonald's employees initiated a class-action lawsuit against the Golden Arches for failing to adopt appropriate COVID-19 safety regulations and thus endangering employees and their families. According to Reuters, McDonald's failed to provide adequate hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, and notification of when an employee tested positive.

McDonald's attempted to negotiate with the employees. When that failed, the company filed a motion to dismiss. That too failed. In November, McDonald's announced it was implementing improved safety measures for its employees and customers. As of December 21, however, the case against McDonald's is still chugging along.

And for more, check out these 108 most popular sodas ranked by how toxic they are.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a food, health, and culture writer whose work has appeared online and in print for Reader's Digest as well as Health Digest, Huffington Post, Taste of Home, and others. Read more
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