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McDonald’s, Happy Meals, Obesity, Produce and the Nanny State

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 3, 2011

The announcement that McDonald’s would add fruit to its child-focused Happy Meals has brought lots of publicity. From The New York Post, which proclaimed It’s Mayor McFruit,to The New York Times, which celebrated that McDonald’s Trims Its Happy Meal,to the Los Angeles Times, which exclaimed that McDonald's to make Happy Meals more healthful, most media outlets greeted this as good news, even while noting that some critics felt the move didn’t go far enough. San Francisco has passed a law that will ban the inclusion of toys in meals that don’t meet its nutritional standards. Similar legislation has been proposed for New York City.

On the substance of the change, McDonald’s is being more effective than most at such efforts. Not only is McDonald’s adding 1.1 ounces of produce, typically apple slices, but it could also be carrots, mandarin orange slices and other fruits or vegetable items depending on the season and location, but McDonald’s also reduced the French fry serving from 2.4 ounces to 1.1 ounces — although kids can request to double up on either the fruit or the fries.

In total, this reduces the calories in a typical hamburger Happy Meal from 590 to 470.

If parents have their children drink water instead of 12 ounces of Coca-Cola, they can shave 120 more calories off the meal.

Of course, there is precious little evidence that this type of change will have any impact at all on the health of children or childhood obesity.

Teenagers — who don’t typically eat Happy Meals — are the most intense consumers of fast food, with around 17% of their total food coming from these sources.

So, overwhelmingly, children get their nutrition from places other than fast food, so minor changes in the fast food product assortment are unlikely to influence health outcomes very much.

And, of course, nobody has tested these changes to know what impact they will have on consumption. Cutting calories out of one order might lead to lower consumption, but it might not.

When Disney switched to a default to apple sauce and grapes and carrots, the Jr. Pundits gladly took the produce — and then asked for a large side of fries. Their calorie consumption actually increased. Disney, of course, got an additional ring — which may not have been an unintended side effect of the menu change.

Who is to say that the children won’t snack more when they get home or go to the beverage dispenser while at McDonald’s and get an extra Coke? Maybe the children will be hungry and order something from the McDonald’s Dollar Menu, say a 330-calorie hot fudge sundae.

It is also notable that McDonald’s did not add what is obviously missing from a Happy Meal — a vegetable. Many a parent would let their children eat the fries, if the kids would eat a cup of broccoli florets or some nice spinach as well.

We read this whole story more as a tale of sustainability in action at a high corporate level and as a cautionary tale as to why we are having trouble getting economic growth booming.

In one of the sustainability bibles, The Triple Bottom Line, the authors tell the story of how the charitable trust that owns most of Hershey’s was blocked from selling the company even though, legally, the trustees were free to do so. The moral of the story, and the case for sustainability, was that it is not enough to know one’s rights; a business today has to realize that various societal “stakeholders” can use the media and the government to cause businesses significant harm.

So instead of focusing on selling its customers what they want to buy — only 11% of consumers take the long-existing option to get apples instead of fries in a Happy Meal — the executives at McDonald’s are busy trying to position the company in a way that heads off laws and regulatory action and that avoids reputational harm.

The cost of this is not always obvious, but it is real. Wal-Mart has been struggling for years with declining same-store sales, in no small part because the company had to pivot from a merchandising organization focused solely on pleasing consumers to a geo-political entity, balancing consumer interests against corporate interests that can be affected by regulatory, legal and reputational issues.

Nobody can blame executives at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart for dealing with the real world. Indeed the whole restaurant industry is concerned about positioning itself on the side of the angels in the anti-obesity campaign.

This is what drove the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association to publicly announce an alliance with PMA to double usage of produce in foodservice. Although, to date, we have been most disappointed with NRA’s follow-through, and we’ve written about the matter here and here, we were thrilled to see NRA President, Dawn Sweeney, make an extensive investment of time to attend and present at PMA’s recent foodservice conference. So, perhaps, we have turned a corner and will see the NRA really start pressing this issue with its members. 

In any case, the fact that NRA felt the need to at least proclaim its involvement in this effort tells us a lot. After all, why would restaurant owners care if people like to eat produce or, instead, prefer pasta? The answer is they wouldn’t, unless they were concerned with what others — the media, the government, advocacy groups — were thinking about the restaurant industry.

Appropriately, the produce industry will celebrate McDonald’s move — McDonald’s will almost surely buy a lot more apples than they would have. So that is a real industry win. Clever marketers are already thinking of what else they can persuade McDonald’s to slip into the Happy Meal.

But the industry should also ask itself why consumer demand for its products is not sufficient to drive these kinds of menu revisions? Why is it necessary to have public pressure on McDonald’s to sell more produce? Why isn’t the consumer demanding the product?

When we read of efforts such as those of San Francisco and New York to ban toys in the children’s meals unless some arbitrary standard is met, we recoil a bit. Partly it is because we detest such nanny-state attempts to manipulate the citizenry. It is also because we think someone should actually study these things before doing them, and we know of zero evidence that such policies reduce obesity in children. The Jr. Pundits never had a problem ordering something to get a toy and then not eating the meal if they didn’t want it. So we have severe doubts that eliminating the toy will reduce the calories consumed by children.

But we also know that no food is bad or good, and if the children want some French Fries, even a full 2.4 ounces occasionally, that is not a problem.

Inevitably, it is the parents who have to step up and assume responsibility for the diets of their children. Anything that sends a message that the government or McDonald’s is going to take care of these issues, anything that encourages a parent to think he or she doesn’t have to be engaged, is likely to lead to more obese children, not less.

We are not the only ones with these concerns. Here is a funny little video that focuses on the new San Francisco law: 

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