Saturday, July 10, 2010

McDonalds can win the fast food health fight

Who is the most popular object of ridicule on YouTube today?

Is it the President? Osama bin Laden? A World Cup referee?

No, it’s McDonald’s.

The video above, a 20-year old Happy Meal commercial, is from happier times. Today you’re more likely to see Ronald McDonald portrayed as a zombie, a demon, or just physically abusive.

There’s a method to the madness, a growing public backlash against McDonald’s, driven in part by health advocates, and culminating last week in the Center for Science in the Public Interest threatening to sue the company over its Happy Meals.

This follows by less than a month a decision by Santa Clara County in California to ban Happy Meals. The ordinance sets calorie (460) and salt (600 mg) limits for meals that can be promoted with toys as premiums.

The effort has drawn instant pushback, both from local reporters and conservatives angry over a big company being pushed around.

But regular readers of this blog know the issue goes beyond McDonald’s, to the idea of cartoons being used to sell unhealthy choices, and to the unhealthiness of fast food diets.

McDonald’s tried to dodge all this by making apple slices an option, next to french fries, in its meals. Its opponents are calling that a dodge.

The answer here does not likely sit with legislators or law courts. It lies with McDonald’s taking up the carrot being offered in Santa Clara and seizing an opportunity.

It would not be hard to get Happy Meals inside the Santa Clara law. Make low fat milk the standard drink, cut back a bit on salting the fries, and you’re done. McDonald’s might make up for any loss by adding premiums (for teens or adults) to larger meals geared to bigger bodies.

If you think it’s crazy to imagine a 40 year old buying the equivalent of a Happy Meal, you haven’t been to a ballgame and watched some dad dig around a box of Cracker Jack looking for the prize.

McDonald’s actually has tried to be a good corporate citizen in the past. It added salads to its menu. It complied with labeling laws. Look at its international operations and you’ll see it following a host of dietary and marketing rules set by culture and government around the world.

In other words, this doesn’t have to become a conflict. It’s a challenge for food science to mass produce healthier meals in ways that can be loaded on trucks and delivered by teenagers. But it’s not an impossible challenge.

My guess is that, at some point this summer, McDonald’s will take that up. The pressure will remain, but this is not going to turn into a war between fast food and health.

The company that can deliver a healthy fast food meal is going to make a lot of money and earn a lot of goodwill. McDonald’s puts more money into research than any company in its industry. I think they can do it.

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