McDonald's' announcement of healthier Happy Meals and a commitment to achieving generally more healthy menu offerings in the longer term is meeting with largely favorable reactions from nutrition advocates, including First Lady Michelle Obama.
The First Lady, the force behind "Let's Move!" and other initiatives to stem the obesity epidemic, issued this statement in response to the mega-QSR's announcement: "McDonald's is making continued progress today by providing more fruit and reducing the calories in its Happy Meals. I've always said that everyone has a role to play in making America healthier, and these are positive steps toward the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity. McDonald's has continued to evolve its menu, and I look forward to hearing about the progress of today's commitments, as well as efforts in the years to come."
On the Happy Meals front, the chain will begin including apple slices (a quarter cup/half serving) in each meal, a smaller size of French fries (1.1 ounces vs. 2.4 ounces), and a choice of beverage that includes a new, fat-free chocolate milk and 1% white milk (or soda, if requested by a parent). The new meals will start being introduced in September, with a goal of a roll-out to all 14,000-plus McDonald's units by Q1 2012.
The chain told the Chicago Tribune that in consumer tests, parents and children rejected the option of completely replacing fries with a fruit or vegetable. McDonald's also reported that while 88% of customers are now aware of the Apple Dippers it introduced as a fries alternative in its Happy Meals in 2004 (and that it hasn't advertised fries-option Happy Meals since), just 11% of kids' meals are currently ordered with apples instead of fries. The caramel dip that was included with Apple Dippers is being phased out, as well.
On the broader front, McDonald's committed, by 2020, to reducing added sugars, saturated fat and calories in its menu selections through varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations. It also committed, by 2015, to reducing sodium by an average of 15% overall across its national menu items.
The chain pointed out that it has already reduced sodium in its national chicken menu offerings, including Chicken McNuggets (a popular Happy Meal choice) by 10%, on average.
McDonald's' announcement of this chain-specific initiative would appear to explain its conspicuous absence as a participant in the recently announced "Kids LiveWell" program, a voluntary restaurant industry initiative in which 19 leading chains have agreed to offer and promote items that meet nutritional criteria based on the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines.
McDonald's has been a participant in the voluntary Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Advertising (CFBAI) initiative since 2006. As reported in Marketing Daily, CFBAI recently announced stricter, more uniform guidelines for participating companies.
McDonald's cited various testimonials in its nutrition changes announcement, including one from a member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. "I applaud the commitments made by McDonald's today," stated Roger Clemens, adjunct professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California. "They have captured the intent of the Guidelines and have taken a reasoned, evidence-based approach that should have a positive impact on the millions of children and adults McDonald's serves every day."
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and a vocal critic of fast foods and packaged foods/beverages with high fat, sodium and sugar content, tells Marketing Daily that she is cautiously optimistic about the McDonald's announcement.
"It's a step forward," Nestle says. "They've gone part way, although I wish they'd gone a little further. For instance, why not offer a half-cup of apples instead of a quarter cup? It's definitely positive that they're making the healthier choices [for Happy Meals] the default, rather than putting the onus on parents to order those options. But we'll have to wait and see. Will these meals sell as well? And if not, will they stick with it, or backtrack?"
Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the most all-around active consumer nutrition advocacy group, issued a largely positive response to McDonald's' announcement.
"The improvements that McDonald's has announced for its Happy Meals are an important step in the right direction," stated CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "It's good news that those meals will all have apple slices, smaller servings of fries, and fewer calories. While we wish that Happy Meals would include a bigger serving of fresh fruit or vegetable, including even a small serving -- and without a sugary sauce -- as a standard component is a real advance.
"McDonald's clearly has a lot more to do, for both kids and adults," Jacobson continued. "But this move is a sign that the company recognizes that parents don't want burgers, fries and soda to be the default fast-food experience. And surely, McDonald's recognizes that policy makers are becoming increasingly interested in ensuring that healthier foods are marketed to children."
Still, AtlanticWire writer John Hudson observed that the pledges for 2020 "seem like a pretty long time away." In conjunction with its nutrition change commitments, McDonald's announced that it is launching a number of supporting initiatives. These include expanding in-restaurant, brand Web site and mobile communications nutritional information, coupled with supporting marketing efforts, according to the company.
The brand's first mobile app (see graphic) offers nutritional information for menu items, along with a location guide to the chain's restaurants.
McDonald's USA president Jan Fields, with other senior U.S. executives, will launch a national "listening tour" in August, to hear direct input from parents and nutritional experts, according to McDonald's.
McDonald's also reports that it is establishing an online parents' forum area, as well as a "Kids' Food and Nutrition Advisory Board," comprised of parents and experts in children's nutrition, education and behavior, to develop "effective nutrition and active lifestyle marketing messages and programming for kids."
The company says it will also form an agreement with a third-party organization to "collaborate on a comprehensive measurement process that sets benchmarks and annual progress against commitment goals, which will be reported publicly."
As the largest-selling QSR, McDonald's has come under increasing fire in recent times from consumer nutrition -- and particularly children's nutrition -- groups. Last year, two California counties banned offering toys with meals unless the meals met specific nutritional standards, and similar legislation has been proposed in New York. A California state court recently denied McDonald's' motion to have the Happy Meals lawsuit moved to federal court, which is considered more friendly to corporate interests than state courts.
McDonald's' iconic mascot, Ronald McDonald, has also come under increasing heat from various children's nutrition advocacy groups, and from some shareholders. But McDonalds's CEO Jim Skinner has been adamant in stating that the mascot is an "ambassador for good" (re the Ronald McDonald House Charities) and a beloved, rather than unhealthy, influence on children.
Most recently, at the annual shareholders' meeting in late May, Skinner reported that media ads paid for by a group seeking to retire the Ronald McDonald character had prompted an outpouring of feedback from customers asking that McDonald's "defend their right to choose."