Last week, McDonald’s got a super-sized celebrity endorsement. Big Mac enthusiast turned vegan President Bill Clinton announced that the chain would be partnering with the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the American Heart Association to make some modifications to its model, including serving more fruits and vegetables and adjusting its marketing to children. According to Clinton, “We need more companies to follow McDonald’s' lead and step up to the plate and make meaningful changes.”
According to the company's press release, the aim is “to increase customers' access to fruits and vegetables and help families and children to make informed choices in keeping with balanced lifestyles.” So far, it has made one specific menu commitment – to “provide a choice of a side salad, fruit or vegetable as a substitute for French fries in value meals” – and four general, marketing-related promises, including to “promote and market only water, milk and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals,” and to “ensure 100 percent of all advertising directed to children [will] include a fun nutrition or children’s well-being message.”
So was the Atlantic’s David H. Freedman right after all? Will junk food end obesity? Sorry, McNuggets lovers, but probably not. While it sounds like McDonald’s customers may have a few wholesome new fruits and vegetables to choose from, it’s a little too early to get excited.
To start, the fast food giant has found ways to add calories to so-called healthy foods before, telling Salon that, “it all comes down to [giving customers] choices and options.” Many of the McWraps, McSalads and McSmoothies have all been given the McCalorie treatment, with each of the products’ fat and sugar counts going as high as some of the McDonald’s burgers. (To be fair, there are a few “healthier” options, as a McDonald’s spokesperson was quick to point out to Salon: the Premium Southwest Chicken Salad’s 390 calories includes its Newman’s Own Creamy Southwest Dressing – but make sure you order the chicken grilled and not “crispy” – the fat content jumps from 8g to 21g.) Even the seemingly harmless sliced apples have been McDonaldized: Despite the chain’s dropping the apples' caramel dip companions, last year almost 300,000 cases of apples sent to McDonald’s, Burger Kings and grocery chains in 36 states were recalled because of a potential Listeria contamination at a New Jersey plant.
Whichever new fruits and vegetables McDonald’s chooses to start offering (and the company has declined to name any specifics besides “side salads”), chances are that because of the chain’s massive buying needs, its entrance into their marketplaces will have widespread negative impacts. As "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser has said, “McDonald's makes a huge impact, not because they are deliberately out to screw the food system, but because they are so massive, and because they demand a uniform product.”
In 2002, the senior director of McDonald’s' U.S. food supply chain, John Hayes, told the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association that in addition to the “close to a billion pounds” of beef it purchases, the company also buys “500 million pounds of poultry products, 250 million pounds of pork products, over a billion pounds of French fries, 156 million dozens of eggs and 16 million gallons of milk.” He added, “In every one of those categories, if we’re not the largest, we’re one of the largest.” This incredible purchasing power means that when McDonald’s decides, for example, that it will no longer work with companies using gestation crates, the impacts are industry-wide. But it also means that it deserves a large proportion of the blame when harmful food industry operating practices -- to the animals, the environment and the employees -- exist in the first place.
The impact of McDonald's is not limited to the chains’ fatty proteins and starches. Its last fruit mascot, the apple, has also been hit. According to the Guardian, at a 2004 U.S. Apple Association conference, a McDonald’s spokesman said “that if growers wanted to work with the company, they would have to cultivate more of two varieties in particular: cameo and pink lady.” A year later, Washington state’s cameo crop was 58 percent larger than it had been prior to the announcement. If McDonald’s wants less variety, everybody gets less variety. Increasingly centralized processing to maintain uniformity also explains how a potential Listeria contamination at a single plant can lead to a nationwide recall.
McDonald’s says it “will continue to work closely with our suppliers to ensure we are sourcing in a responsible manner,” but doesn’t define “responsible” or divulge details on how it’ll take these steps. Whatever new kinds of produce McDonald’s starts buying up is at risk of going the way of our beef, chicken, eggs and now apples.
Call me a cynic, but it’s also hard to completely trust those Golden Arches. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, McDonald's claims that it will limit Happy Meal beverage marketing to water, juice and milk are somewhat misleading. According to the fine print, there's a loophole: “McDonald’s may list soft drinks as [sic] offering on [sic] Happy Meal section of menu boards.”
This bait-and-switch isn’t so surprising when considered alongside McDonald’s' shady history with living up to its health-related commitments. In 2002 it promised to cut the dangerous level of trans fat found in its cooking oil. By 2005, when it still hadn’t followed through, a California court ordered it to fund the American Heart Association’s $7 million public education campaign on trans fat, and to spend an additional $1.5 million to keep the public in the loop on its progress in finding a substitute. Despite using trans fat-free oil in Denmark since at least 2006, it didn’t make the change in the U.S. until May 2008 – a move that was in all likelihood prompted by the New York City ban on trans fats that began the following month. McDonald’s chalks this up to the size of the order, saying the time frame was “multifaceted” and adding that making the change in 14,000 U.S. restaurants is “no small feat.” But it didn’t explain why those issues weren’t considered before it made the public promise or whether this new rollout would face the same challenges.
Considering that we don’t yet know what new fruit and vegetable options will appear, where those foods will come from, or even – as we’ve learned – if they’ll show up at all, it seems a little early to be applauding. But the food itself isn’t the only problem with McDonald’s' planned approach. While it might be shifting some of the products it’s peddling to children, it’s still going to continue using clowns, pop stars and cartoon characters to turn kids into lifelong customers, even if it describes the efforts to Salon as “generat[ing] excitement for fruit, vegetables and low-fat/fat-free dairy.”
Health advocates and researchers agree that children are especially vulnerable to marketing, and that “until 8 years of age most children are cognitively incapable of appreciating the commercial purpose of television advertising and are particularly vulnerable to its persuasive techniques.” No matter what product is being pushed, the message is still a bad one. As Michele Simon writes on Eat Drink Politics, “Marketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.” If McDonald’s wants to do its part to reduce childhood obesity, it should follow Taco Bell’s lead and stop marketing to children entirely.
And of course, none of this even begins to address the fact that the Clinton endorsement comes with no strings attached regarding the company’s highly reported dispute with its employees, or the less discussed revolt brewing among its franchisees. A man of the people like Bill should know better than to support a mega-corporation that pulled in $6.92 billion in 2012 and yet refuses to pay its workers a living wage and stands accused of “doing everything [it] can to shift costs to operators."
So instead of cheering on his old flame, Bill Clinton would be doing us all a favor if he just let this one go and moved on.