“When do you praise large companies for their sustainability efforts? Is it appropriate to commend them for their steps, even if small?”
Lindsay Dahl, who blogs about food and health, posed these questions to a roundtable of bloggers, including me.* I assert that the answer depends on another important question: Are the small steps taken in order to deflect pressure away from those companies taking the critical big steps? The recent announcement by McDonald’s offers a good case study of these issues. McDonald’s partnered with the Alliance for A Healthier Generation in promoting small steps the company will take by the year 2020:
1. Feature only water, milk and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising directed to children; For Happy Meals, remove all soda logos and images of cups with soda from Happy Meal section of menu boards (where it exists) and all in-store and external advertising directed to children. Note: McDonald’s will phase out the listing of soda on the Happy Meal section of the Menu Board in alignment with Year 3 and Year 5 timetables. Soda will be available as a beverage option but it will not be listed on the Happy Meal section of the menu board.
2. Offer side salad, fruit or vegetable as a substitute for fries in value meals;
3. Utilize Happy Meal and other packaging innovations and designs to generate excitement for fruit, vegetable, low/ reduced fat dairy or water options for kids or Offer new fruit, vegetable, low/ reduced fat dairy or water option in the Happy Meal;
4. Dedicate one Happy Meal box or bag panel to communicate a fun nutrition or children’s well-being message (four times annually); and
5. Include a fun nutrition or children’s well-being message in 100% of advertising directed to children.
It took the threat of litigation by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for McDonald’s to actually agree to commit to the first of these small steps after it had misled the public. It did finally agree to take soda off the Happy Meals menu but it is ridiculous that it will take three to five years to make this small change. It also has limited impact because of the sugary milk and juice options. The value meal substitutions are also small steps similar to when cigarette companies rolled out low-tar cigarettes when the pressure from health advocates started to build. The nutrition messages on the Happy Meals packaging send a confusing signal to children who may associate the McDonald’s brand with healthy eating. All of these small steps were designed to silence the very health organizations that should be pushing for McDonald’s to take the most important step of not marketing to children.
In determining whether the small steps are a deflection from taking the big steps, it is important to look at the company’s history. Trust is earned and in the case of McDonald’s, they have a long track record of abusing the trust of the public health community. Author and attorney Michele Simon provides a number of examples.
• In 1986, the Texas attorney general’s office had to threaten to sue McDonald’s to get the company to provide clear nutrition information.
• In 1987, McDonald’s was again investigated by the Texas AG’s office for a series of ads that promoted its food as nutritious; the ads were deemed “deceptive and illegal” and “falsely and deceptively represented that McDonald’s food was nutritious.”
• In 2002, McDonald’s was sued over the use of beef tallow in its cooking oil, which the company had claimed was 100 percent vegetable oil. The case was settled for $10 million and an apology.
• Also in 2002, McDonald’s made a public promise to remove trans-fat from its cooking oil within six months, but failed to follow through and didn’t bother to tell anyone. A fraud lawsuit was settled for $8.5 million.
• In 2006, McDonald’s “discovered” that its fries contain one-third more deadly trans-fat than previously thought, and didn’t offer an explanation.
• In 2011, after losing a heated policy fight in San Francisco to place reasonable nutrition standards on children’s meals sold with toys, instead of complying with the law, McDonald’s found a clever workaround.
The agreement with the Alliance does nothing to reduce McDonald’s marketing to kids. If anything, it will make it even more difficult for those of us who are trying to keep McDonald’s marketing out of every nook and cranny of children’s lives. Many parents can and do turn off the McDonald’s ads on their televisions but cannot protect children from manipulation when marketers use schools and children’s sporting events to promote the Golden Arches. Instead of lauding a company like McDonald’s for taking small steps, advocates need to continue to push for companies to take the big steps which will lead to meaningful change instead of postponing it.
* For other points of view on this topic visit these blogs: