McDonald's is more than just the world's largest restaurant chain. Its golden arches symbolize fast food. To critics, they symbolize all the evils fast food represents: salt, sugar, fat and mystery additives, everything highly processed, the antithesis of natural, organic and healthy.
True-blue McDonald's fans, whose numbers are legion, scoff at these criticisms; they're as unlikely to be turned against the chain as the critics are to be won over. But for those who are neither critics nor fans, who patronize McDonald's now and then but sometimes feel guilty doing so, the company has something new and important to say. It's something farmers will want to pay attention to.
"McDonald's USA Announces Big Changes to its Food" (http://tiny.cc/…) is how the headline on the company's press release summarized it. Among the changes:
--New buns with no high fructose corn syrup;
--No more artificial preservatives in Chicken McNuggets and several other menu items;
--Elimination of antibiotics important to human medicine from chicken a year ahead of schedule.
These measures, the news release said, touch ingredients in nearly half of the food on McDonald's menu. And they're just the latest of several changes the company has made in its food these last couple of years. Others include committing to 100% cage-free eggs by 2025, eliminating artificial growth hormones from some of its milk offerings and spiffing up the vegetables in its salads.
"More than ever, people care about their food -- where it comes from, what goes into it and how it's prepared," said Mike Andres, president, McDonald's USA. "We're making changes to ensure the food we're proud of is food our customers love and feel good eating, and we remain committed to our continuing food journey at McDonald's."
As I wrote two years ago in "A Battlefield Report From the Food Wars" (http://tiny.cc/…), "If you want to know who's winning the food-and-agriculture wars, read company press releases."
McDonald's isn't the first chain to go down this road (although it was the industry leader in committing to cage-free eggs) and it won't be the last. Indeed, not long after I penned the first draft of this post, Wendy's announced it will stop serving chicken raised with human antibiotics by 2017 (http://tiny.cc/…). It's the way the world is moving.
Food companies think they can boost sales by promising healthier, more "natural" food sourced from a more animal-friendly agriculture. It won't matter whether an ingredient is actually unhealthy -- it's at best unclear that high fructose corn syrup falls in that category. Consumers, not medical researchers, are driving these changes, and for better or worse consumers have bought into "natural."
This may not even be the last salvo from Mickey D's. "Nothing is out of bounds," not even antibiotic-free beef, the company's supply-chain chief told the Wall Street Journal (http://tiny.cc/…).
Farmers, of course, will produce whatever the market demands if they can make money doing so. The big question is whether the food companies will prove willing to pay farmers for what consumers think they want. Stay tuned.