LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
On July 26, 2011 the McDonald’s Corporation announced that it would make its Happy Meals healthier. The press release said:
“By the end of Q1 2012, we will provide apples in every Happy Meal and promote options that meet the new, rigorous Council of Better Business Bureaus Food Pledge nutrition standards. The impact will be an estimated 20 percent reduction in calories of the most popular Happy Meals, also reducing fat in those meals. We are also exploring alternatives to the automatic apples, such as other produce or low fat dairy items…The company will promote nutrition and/or active lifestyle messages in 100 percent of its national kids’ communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging. McDonald’s will also provide funding for grass roots community nutrition awareness programs.”
In addition the company promised a general decrease in the sodium levels of their food and increasing access to information about the nutritional values of their food.
As early as 2003 there were reports of the decline in the sale of Happy Meals. Even more recently there continue to be less than stellar sales. Apple suppliers are smiling about this decision by McDonald’s to add apples to all Happy Meals. Although children may like the toys, parents are very aware of the cost of the Happy Meal, currently over $3.00. Parents can skip the Happy Meal and provide the components from the dollar menu, sharing fries, and saving money.
Marion Nestle was prompted by the McDonald’s announcement to comment on the press release. She disparages their claims of increased healthfulness as a puny change. She says, “These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps. So what’s going on here? Much of this is about responding to Michelle Obama’s call for action on childhood obesity.”
She acknowledges that a corporation has duty to sell food and make a profit. She references a Wall Street Journal article that outlines the growing obsolescence of the toys in the Happy Meal and the results of the testing of various changes in the meals. Tests show that eliminating fries was unacceptable.
In the past, fast food companies have introduced healthy choices, such as soy burgers, to their menus. But the choice was not one that was desired by customers. Fast food companies, being businesses, have to balance responsibility to the consumer and to their stockholders. Responsibility to stockholders also affects jobs and the financial health of suppliers. Healthy food advocates have evidence that consumers do not always make the healthy choice, although we do not know that they never make a healthy choice. This extends to not having confidence that parents will make the right food choices for their children. If parents cannot be trusted to make the right choices, then who will decide the correct choice: either the manufacturer – McDonald in this case – or the government.
Although I know that corporations are not responsible for preparing healthy food for us, I am not comfortable with the government making the choice either. Right now, as we wait for the government to make decisions about the debt limit based totally on ideology, I worry about the government making ideological decisions about our food choices. Currently our food is corn crazy because of government subsidies. We have high fructose corn syrup because of government policies. We spent decades afraid of fat because of government and health advocates pushing unconfirmed scientific studies as accurate. Perhaps neither health advocates, no matter how earnest and pure-hearted, nor the government, can make appropriate choices for us and our children.
I prefer good, well-prepared food to industrially prepared food. But I am okay with people eating the food they choose to eat. I am also in favor of nutritional information being made known to people, so that they can make better choices if they want to. Maybe a vigorous healthy choices campaign instead of coercive laws would do more to encourage healthy choices.