Wednesday, June 24, 2009

McDonald's Is Poisoning Consumers -- And Blaming Everyone Else

McDonald's Is Poisoning Consumers -- And Blaming Everyone Else for the Catastrophic Societal Costs

By Stacey Folsom

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For most of us it’s not that difficult to understand how McDonald’s share profits rose over 2008 when the rest of the Dow Jones (save for Wal-Mart) was taking a nose dive. After all, they offer a value at the register that’s easy on our thinning pocketbooks.

That said, the value at the register is a misnomer when you look at the true costs McDonald’s is passing on to its patrons. Each year, the direct and indirect costs of diet-related disease cost Americans well over 120 billion dollars. Value meals cost a great deal more when you subdivide that tab by the number of us eating regularly at the Golden Arches and other chains that serve food high in fat, calories, salt and sugar.

McDonald’s has yet to take its share of the blame for this alarming number, let alone the skyrocketing rates of diet-related conditions like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It has instead pumped hundreds of millions into a high-stakes, public relations blame game.

Line 1 – “It’s not our food that’s to blame, it’s a lack of exercise.” Too bad recent studies find that are kids and adults are not much less active than they were just 30 years ago when the amount of fast food being consumed was much lower.

Line 2 – “It’s not our marketing to kids that’s to blame, it’s all the video games and internet media that distract our kids from physical activity.” Have you ever seen McWorld, McDonald’s interactive online playland where, “it’s a kid’s world where kids rule?” Well, it provides a window into the duplicity of the corporation’s marketing to say the least.

Line 3 – “We’re a leader in offering healthier menu choices.” If that means offering salads that have more calories than a Big Mac and apple slices with a caramel dipping sauce…McDonald’s nutritionists seem to have fallen asleep behind the wheel.

And there are as many lines as you’ll find in your neighborhood McDonald’s and more.

But the American public is increasingly seeing through the antics. In a recent Corporate Accountability International poll conducted by Lake Research partners 57 percent of Americans said they believe the fast food industry was, “responsible…for the increase in diet-related diseases and health conditions.” This is a three-fold increase over a similar Gallup poll conducted in 2003.

This alone should give shareholders pause, despite CEO Skinner’s effusive earnings report this May. But there’s more reason to believe all this corporation touches doesn’t turn the golden color of its French fries.

A recent Columbia University and UC Berkeley study found a sizable increase in the rates of obesity in teens who attend school within 1/10 of a mile of fast food chains like McDonald’s. Earlier studies conclude the zoning of fast food is anything but accidental or arbitrary. Fully one-third of schools nationwide have at least one fast food restaurant or convenience store within walking distance.

To further paint the picture, Corporate Accountability International has developed an online mapping tool that allows parents and policymakers to get a sense of how McDonald’s and others cluster around our children’s schools.

This brings up Line 4 – “It’s not our responsibility that kids are getting sick from eating too much of our food, that’s on parents.” Well, McDonald’s certainly isn’t doing parents any favors when it takes advantage of every space parents cannot control to make lifelong customers of young people.

It’s not just the promotion and marketing in and around schools, the siting of restaurants or cleverly disguised product promotion like the McDonald’s All-American Reading Challenge – it’s the actual sale of branded fast food in schools (which occurs in one out of every five schools).

As the largest fast food corporation, McDonald’s can do better than this. It can stop zoning restaurants next to schools and selling branded fast food in schools. It can also provide an example of industry best practices by halting all sports sponsorships and marketing that appeals to children.

These types of actions will signal to shareholders that the corporation cherishes its family-friendly ethos over the lip service of its current public relations. It will also help ensure McDonald’s “value” doesn’t come at the expense of our children’s health.

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