Last week at McDonald’s annual shareholder’s meeting, CEO Don Thompson got caught off-guard when a team of 15 advocates, led by Corporate Accountability International, descended upon corporate headquarters to question the fast food leader’s relentless exploitation of children and communities of color.
Leading the way was Tanya Fields, executive director of the BLK ProjeK and mother of four. In her dramatic statement, Fields described her neighborhood in the Bronx as a “food swamp filled with corner stores and fast food,” noting that with three outlets within walking distance of her home, “McDonald’s happens to be the biggest alligator in that swamp.” She concluded: “Sorry, but four apple slices in plastic packaging won’t cut it.”
McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson’s response was to ignore Fields altogether and instead give the usual cheerleading speech about all the great things his company was doing. Then he took questions, and the fun really began.
Here are the top 10 lies told by Don Thompson during the Q&A session:
In response to 9-year-old Hannah Robertson (read her statement):
1) “First off, we don’t sell junk food, Hannah.”
Thompson tried this spin more than once:
2) “We sell lots of fruits and veggies at McDonald’s and we sell side salads for a dollar on the dollar menu.”
In 2011, McDonald’s made a big deal about how it would automatically include apple slices in Happy Meals. Considering that McDonald’s is now the single largest purchaser of apples in the nation, that may qualify as “lots of fruit.” Then again, the company is also the single largest purchaser of both beef (a billion pounds a year) and potatoes. I suppose Thompson would count fries as a vegetable?
While it’s true McDonald’s sells a side salad on its dollar menu (one of 13 items), if you only have a one dollar to spend, what’s the likelihood you would choose a small salad over the 310-calorie “grilled onion cheddar burger”?
3) Claiming “chicken nugget Happy Meals and fat-free milk” are healthy.
According to the McDonald’s website, Chicken McNuggets contain roughly 30 ingredients, including: sodium phosphates, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate and calcium lactate.
The “fat-free milk” Thompson touted numerous times is actually chocolate milk, containing 10 grams of added sugar, which as registered dietitian Andy Bellatti told me, is more than 75 percent of a day's worth for children ages 4-8 (per the American Heart Association’s guidelines). He added: “As it is, American children are consuming an exorbitant amount of sugar; no one should be encouraging sugary beverages simply because they contain calcium and vitamin D.”
Next, in response to a question from Corporate Accountability International about how McDonald’s is getting kicked out of hospitals over obvious concerns about the conflicting messages, Thompson claimed:
4) “Many hospitals have asked us to come back in or to never leave.”
Thompson must be forgetting about how the CEO of Truman Medical Center in Kansas City kicked McDonald’s out just last year, citing an “inconsistent message.” Perhaps Thompson was also unaware of at least three other hospitals that had ended their contracts with McDonald’s prior to Truman: Lurie Children’s Hospital (formerly Chicago Memorial Hospital), Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Vanderbilt Medical Center and Parkland Health & Hospital System.
Also, Thompson must have missed this memo: more than 3,000 health professionals and institutions from around the world have signed a letter urging McDonald's to stop marketing junk food to children.
Continuing the healthcare theme was a powerful statement by pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Andrew Bremer, who called out the CEO for the company’s marketing to children: “Last year you said, and I quote: ‘Do me the honor… of not associating us with doing something that is damaging to children.’ Well with all due respect, Mr. Thompson, your corporation is doing just that.”
In his response, Thompson seemed to be getting a little desperate, sidestepping the issue of marketing to children altogether, claiming:
5) “We provide high-quality food, we always have. It’s real beef, it’s real chicken, it’s real tomatoes, real lettuce, real fruit, real smoothies, real dairy, real eggs.”
Really? The “real eggs” in an Egg McMuffin are “prepared with” the following:
Liquid Margarine: Liquid Soybean Oil and Hydrogenated Cottonseed and Soybean Oils, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Mono and Diglycerides, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate (Preservatives), Artificial Flavor, Citric Acid, Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Carotene (Color).
Even the “real smoothies” contain unpronounceable additives. See for example, the “fruit base” of the McCafe Mango Pineapple Smoothie, which consists of:
Water, Clarified Demineralized Pineapple Juice Concentrate, Mango Puree Concentrate, Pineapple Juice Concentrate, Orange Juice Concentrate, Pineapple Puree, Passion Fruit Juice, Apple Juice Concentrate, Natural (Botanical Source) and Artificial Flavors, Contains less than 1% of the following: Peach Puree, Cellulose Powder, Pear Juice Concentrate, Xanthan Gum, Peach Juice Concentrate, Pectin, Citric Acid, Colored with Fruit and Vegetable Juice and Turmeric Extract, Ascorbic Acid (Preservative).
But wait, there’s more. The Mango Pineapple Smoothie also contains “low fat smoothie yogurt,” consisting of: “Cultured Grade A Reduced Fat Milk, Sugar, Whey Protein Concentrate, Fructose, Corn Starch, Modified Food Starch, Gelatin, Active Yogurt Cultures.” And did I mention the 47 grams of sugar? But I am sure it’s “real sugar,” right Mr. Thompson?
Next, continuing to pound Thompson on marketing to kids was Kia Robertson (parent of Hannah; see Kia’s statement here). Then the CEO trotted out the tired industry defense on exploiting children:
6) Globally, we follow guidelines on responsible marketing to children.
Parents in Brazil would beg to differ. Just last month, McDonald’s was fined $1.6 million by the consumer protection agency in Sao Paolo for violating local laws on targeting children.
Here in the U.S., McDonald’s is far from responsible. A report from Yale University found that McDonald’s targets children as young as age 2 at Ronald.com. (This site now redirects to HappyMeal.com, where children are forewarned at the top of the page: “Hey kids, this is advertising!”)
The Yale report also found: “Although McDonald's pledged to improve food marketing to children, they increased their volume of TV advertising from 2007 to 2009.” Preschoolers saw 21 percent more McDonald's ads and older children viewed 26 percent more ads in 2009 compared to 2007. So much for guidelines.
Then Thompson actually said these words:
7) “And we are not marketing food to kids.”
Two words: Happy Meals.
8) To further this point, he claimed “We are not marketing in schools.”
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, see here, here, and here for Ronald McDonald visits to schools. Corporate Accountability International’s report contains more examples of school sightings of McDonald’s clown ambassador. The company likes to claim, as CEO Thompson did, that Ronald is “just a clown” and that he doesn’t actually hawk food per se, never mind the branding.
McDonald’s also promotes “McTeacher’s Nights” in which, as the company describes it: “Educators, students, parents, and friends are invited to their local McDonald’s to ‘work’ and raise money for a designated school related cause.” Free labor plus free PR for McDonald’s, how brilliant is that?
In more defensiveness, (you almost had to feel sorry for him) CEO Thompson next tried this line:
9) We are not the cause of obesity.
Did he not see "Supersize Me"?
OK, McDonald’s is obviously not the only cause of our nation’s health woes, but research has shown a connection between the location of fast-food outlets and adverse health outcomes in communities.
For example, one study found that nearly one-third of U.S. children ages 4 to 19 eat fast food, which increases the risk of obesity due to an increase in daily calories. Another study showed that students with fast-food outlets near their schools were more likely to be overweight, and to consume more soda and fewer fruits and vegetables. And this connection was stronger for African-American children, while a third study found a similar pattern among low-income African-American adults. Speaking of which…
In response to Michelle Dyer (see her statement here), who challenged Thompson on McDonald’s marketing to communities of color, the African-American CEO began by joking, “this hits kind of close to home, wonder why that is?” Then he got very defensive, claiming:
10) “We do not, have not, will not, try to target people of color… I’ve been here 23 years. I know we don’t do that and we wouldn’t do that. We don’t do that under my leadership.”
These three McDonald’s websites speak for themselves:
According to this Bloomberg article, in 2011 McDonald’s CEO’s salary topped $8.75 million. For that kind of money, Don Thompson should have far better talking points at the ready. Let’s see what happens next year.
Meanwhile, you can take Corporate Accountability International’s action to tell CEO Don Thompson to stop marketing to children here.