McDonalds’s Latest Makeover: Good Intentions or Bad Spin?

Incremental health improvements are still progress, no matter how calculating the hamburger giant might be

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Children rejoiced and progressives sighed this past week when McDonald’s, always the canniest of the fast-food giants, found a way to circumvent the San Francisco Happy Meal ban as soon as it went into effect. You may remember the Happy Meal ban. Passed into law last fall, it forbade the inclusion of free toys on the not unreasonable supposition that it encouraged children to eat hamburgers. As if they needed encouraging! Nonetheless, it was seen as a check to McDonald’s super-sizing of Americans kids, and inspired much back and forth (including my own take.) So McDonald’s simply started charging a dime for the toys, which is then donated to The Ronald McDonald House, their charity organization. Problem solved! Of course, there was bound to be blowback.

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McDonald’s made a game effort to get in front of it, taking out full-page ads in the New York Times to reiterate its commitment to trying to make kids less fat and unhealthy than they would otherwise be from an all-McDonald’s diet. Their website has so much information about nutrition and diet that you might think at first glance that the place was a spa. But that didn’t help much; everybody who wrote about the story made it clear that the score was Happy Meal 1, Bay Area Progressives 0. Whether this pleased you or not depended on your political attitudes toward food.

I was for my part sympathetic to McDonald’s. It goes without saying that McDonald’s food isn’t healthy and that kids are a big part of their audience. They are trying; Happy Meals will soon have even tinier orders of fries than they do now and little orders of apple slices for children to not eat. And, what’s more, the company has committed to lowering the sodium in their products. Nor are they alone in this: Burger King, which always follows McDonald’s lead, just announced a new french-fry design that will, they promise, be better for you.

Now, it’s easy to say that eating a slightly healthier Burger King french fry is the food equivalent of wearing a bike helmet in a demolition derby. But it’s also true that incremental improvements are better than none at all. Salt may be bad for you, but it tastes great and in fact might be the single most important thing in all of cookery. You can’t demand that McDonald’s or Burger King stop selling hamburgers and french fries. That’s what McDonald’s and Burger King do. In the areas where there aren’t a lot of alternatives, people are going to eat hamburgers, so it would go well for them if the hamburgers, and everything else, were a little healthier.

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In that sense, I think McDonald’s Happy Meal strategy is detracting from the good news about the story, which is that the fast-food giants are becoming more concerned with health issues, just as they are starting to pay attention to animal-cruelty issues. (McDonald’s did the chickens of the world a great service by cutting off an egg farm that was caught mistreating its animals.) In the past, the big chains tried to deflect criticism by adding tasteless salads, microwaved baked potatoes and other dishes so wretched that only a starving vegetarian would ever want to eat them. I know that for my own part, no meal can be called happy that doesn’t have some fat and some salt in it; but at the very least, the current movement in fast food is a reversal of the mindless “let’s add more bacon and cheese!” strategy that has been running wild the last few years. Or the even crazier “fast food dada” that I wrote about last year.

McDonald’s, for all its cunning moves, is trying to be better. That’s not to say it, or any of its rivals, are especially admirable; but progress, in hamburgers as in history, comes slowly when it comes at all.