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Thursday, September 11

Inside the McDonald’s Machine

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

This post is sponsored by McDonald’s. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.

In May, McDonald’s flew me to Chicago to visit their headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. I sat down for 60 minutes of discussion with some of their leadership team, including the senior directors of marketing and management. McDonald’s understands that they have a polarizing brand and they are making efforts to reach out to people who have neutral or negative opinions about the company (people like me!) to engage in a dialogue. When they first approached me about potentially doing a sponsored post on my blog involving an interview with members of the leadership team, in all honesty my initial reaction was “no way.” But I thought about it a lot and decided that this could be an excellent opportunity to talk with decision-makers at the company, ask them direct questions and hear what they had to say (as well as maybe get a chance to share my thoughts around their business).

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

I feel strongly that what we do in the kitchen has a strong impact on Mother Earth. My New Year’s resolutions always involve an environmental goal that’s directly related to how our family eats. I also try to cook at home as much as I can to feed my family a nutritious and balanced diet. But guess what? We also go to McDonald’s. Not all the time, but we go. Cate doesn’t like McDonald’s and normally doesn’t order anything (she’s well-versed in the concept of monoculture farming but also does not enjoy the food). Anna and Owen, however, love McDonald’s, and it’s a special treat for them when we go. That said, on the occasions that I visit McDonald’s, questions and concerns about sustainability and our food system are constantly swirling in my head.

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When my girls found out that I was going to interview people at McDonald’s, I asked if they had any specific things they wanted me to talk about. They both said they wanted me to ask McDonald’s to please put baby carrots in the Happy Meals. I shared our family’s wish with Chef Jessica, so I’ve done my duty. Even though McDonald’s does not accept unsolicited advice – “Jane Maynard’s Requests” was not on the “How a Product Is Developed” infographic they shared with me – if baby carrots ever do appear in the Happy Meal, the girls and I are totally taking credit!

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

On to the interviews! Here are the folks that I had the chance to talk with, both in person and over the phone:

  • Justin Ransom, PhD, Senior Director, Quality Systems, Supply Chain Management
  • Erik Gonring, Manager, Global Government Relations & Public Affairs
  • Chef Jessica Foust, RDN, Director of Culinary Innovation
  • Cindy Goody, PhD, MBA, RDN, LDN, Senior Director of Nutrition
  • Darci Forrest, Senior Director Marketing, Menu Innovation Team

In my discussion with Justin and Erik, we talked about food sustainability and supply issues, which have always been my biggest concerns with McDonald’s and other big food brands. I learned from talking with Justin and Erik that when McDonald’s looks at sourcing, there’s a triple bottom line that’s defined by three Es: ethics, environment and economics. Those three factors drive how the company sources their food. One interesting takeaway that I learned – and something that I honestly hadn’t thought about before – is that McDonald’s wants to get their food from sustainable sources, because they need those supplies to not disappear.

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

Erik gave the example of the Filet-O-Fish, an iconic McDonald’s item. At one point, the company learned that they were contributing to the depletion of the cod supply off the Atlantic coast. This problem had ethical, environmental and economic implications. McDonald’s knew they had to make a change, especially since they needed a long-term fish supply in order to continue serving the beloved sandwich. After years of work, McDonald’s USA has reached a point where all of the whitefish they use is sustainably harvested, and McDonald’s was the first national chain to serve whitefish sourced from a Marine Stewardship Council-certified sustainable fishery.

I also inquired about organic and local sourcing. Justin said that 14,000 restaurants using local and/or organic ingredients is a challenge. Taking into account their high standards for quality, safety and consistency, McDonald’s has to minimize risk in their supply chain, which makes organic and locally sourced foods difficult to implement. I understand this on a logical level, but it’s still a concern for me. I asked Justin if he was at all optimistic that, in the future, we could source foods in more sustainable ways at this scale. Justin said he is. Honestly, I don’t know that I am, but I’m glad someone is.

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

We also discussed waste. On the customer side, I asked about recycling and compost bins in restaurants. Erik said that when there is infrastructure to support recycling and composting, typically they get on board: restaurants in cities including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Austin have recycling bins, and many of those markets also compost organic waste behind the counter. But he also stressed that customer behavior is the biggest challenge when implementing these systems. On the supply side, I learned that the bulk of the waste at a restaurant happens behind the counter. McDonald’s recycles their corrugate and cooking oil in many restaurants, which makes up to 40% of that behind-the-scenes waste. The company is also taking actions like phasing out polystyrene coffee cups and joining the How2Recycle label program to make it easier for customers to recycle away from the restaurant.

The biggest takeaway from my discussion with Erik and Justin is that McDonald’s won’t compromise on their final product. The McDonald’s fry is a good example of this. Justin said that the taste of McDonald’s fries must remain consistent around the world. This means that McDonald’s only uses a handful of potato varieties from specific regions of the world. I was told that identifying new varieties is a long and arduous process and McDonald’s would never allow customers to notice a change in their fries. For me, this is a perfect example of how our demand for one specific product leads to problematic farming practices. If there were more room for variation, we wouldn’t need to farm such limited varieties of potatoes. When there is such a high demand for just a few crops, those plants are susceptible to pests, which in turn necessitates the use of either GMOs – which McDonald’s made clear that they do not use – or pesticides. Industrialized monoculture farming, where you grow un-diversified crops, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our demand – what we will or will not buy – directly impacts how food is grown.

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In my discussion with chef Jessica, nutritionist Cindy and marketer Darci, we talked at length about the menu, how it’s developed and efforts around nutrition. Here are four key takeaways from that discussion:

  • When a new product is rolled out, it takes anywhere from nine months to four years to develop, from conceptualization to finally being sold in restaurants.
  • McDonald’s has reformulated a long list of their ingredients, from the Big Mac bun to nuggets, to contain less sodium.
  • McDonald’s is working on a set of initiatives for their top nine and top 20 markets to be fulfilled by 2020 that include, among other things, increasing the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables that are served, as well as offering more salads and produce as options with meals.
  • Taste is key. McDonald’s won’t sacrifice when it comes to taste and is completely focused on serving customers what they want and will buy.

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

The Arches, a full-service McDonald’s restaurant in the corporate office building.

A lot of the issues that I have with McDonald’s and our food system in general map back to the consumer. For instance, I asked Darci why McDonald’s peels the apples in their Happy Meals. (I really wish that the apples were not peeled so that my kids would at least have the option of eating better.) Darci explained that McDonald’s serves apples that way because it was the best balance they could find of serving a product that parents would feel good about giving their kids but also one that the kids would eat, based on testing prior to the product launch. Corporations as large as McDonald’s have a social responsibility and should take a leadership role, but purchasing power is also incredibly important when it comes to effecting change.

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So did I learn anything new through this process? Yes. Did I get some answers that weren’t completely satisfactory? Yes. Did I get some positive answers I wasn’t expecting? Yes. Could I have asked questions all day long? You bet. And do I still believe that we, the consumers, are at the root of the food system and that we can make a difference? Yes!

A visit to the McDonald's headquarters by @janemaynard

Let me know in the comments section below: if you could ask the McDonald’s team one question, what would it be?

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19 Comments »

  1. 1
    Stephanie P.

    Interesting write-up, glad you had the chance for a sit-down b/c my own views often align with your own. I don’t eat McDonalds anymore because fast food doesn’t make me feel great. I also don’t have a job & three kids so I’ve got time to make dinner. My mom surely took her three girls for happy meals on rushed days.

    Aside from the concerns you addressed, their menu still bothers me. We have an obesity epidemic in this country and I rarely see/hear McD’s adds for their healthy options, but rather the new triple burger! When they offered the one patty jr. Macs, I loved them, I can’t, and don’t want to, eat even a double burger let alone triple.

    I believe McD’s will always choose cashing in on those who eat horribly over doing right by our nation’s health and risk losing money.

    Also, part of the reason I gave up fast food was because the quality was horrible, my burgers always haphazardly thrown together, fries always cold. I believe if their workers don’t care to make the food properly, why would they care about overall cleanliness and food safety?

    • great thoughts, stephanie. thank you! I didn’t know about the one patty jr. macs – that’s up my alley, too. it’s funny, I find I often only eat half of the food that is served to me at McDonald’s (as well as other restaurants) because it’s just much more food than I want to be eating! I wish those items would stick around. I suppose they don’t sell well and that’s the bottom line in the end. it’s a bummer. my friend heidi said McDs had a healthy sandwich option (I can’t remember exactly what it was) that she really liked but it only lasted a short time. I wish those healthier options had more staying power. anyway, I appreciate everything you had to say – good thoughts and comments!

  2. 2
    Stephanie P.

    Adds–McD’s advertisements that was meant to be.

  3. Thanks for your awesome reporting, Jane! I think McDonald’s is taking a positive step in reducing the sodium content of many of its menu items, but I’d also like to know if they’re working to reduce sugar content. A regular hamburger at McDonald’s contains six grams of sugar, which is half the daily allowance of added sugar recommended for children by both the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association. This seems unnecessarily high, and with the recent landmark study referencing sugar as the true root of America’s obesity epidemic, an area on which McDonald’s should focus.

    • thanks for your thanks, hillary! and, yes, SUGAR. I read that there is a movement to add the line item “Added Sugar” to nutrition labels – I sincerely hope that happens because it will definitely impact how much sugar companies add to their food.

      sure enough, I checked the nutritional info on the hamburger on McDonald’s site and there are 6 grams of sugar. Sugar is so sneaky!

      Great question for the McDonald’s team – thanks, Hillary!

  4. 4
    Ada

    I really liked this article and your balanced approach to reporting . McDonald’s, like most life choices (and especially when choosing food), can be as healthy or unhealthy as the chooser chooses. Say choose one more time!

  5. Hi, Jane!!! You did a great job writing this article. I loved your baby carrots suggestion.

    Although I am not a big fan of McDonald’s, there are a few items that I do enjoy eating there: Its grilled chicken sandwich (a better choice) and Southwestern salad with grilled chicken and balsamic vinaigrette (the best fast food salad ever).

    It is so interesting… As I was running errands this late morning, I tried to order apple slices from Burger King but I got quite surprised about the price: $2 for a little bag with a few slices. I said to the cashier that I would not pay such a price because at McDonald’s I could order the same for 50 to 80 cents.

    So yes, McDonald’s is not all that bad.

    My children love McDonald’s although I have to interfere with their choices every single time that we eat there. I think one has to know what to choose!!! People love to point the finger to others but they often forget about they are responsible for their own choices.

    I think McDonald’s (and other fast food chains) should do a better job cutting large portions and making healthier food items available.

  6. Since I don’t have little kids any more, we almost never eat at McDonald’s. If McDonald’s really does start to offer healthier, fresh food options, I may have to give it another try.

  7. Your daughters are showing their Swedish heritage as you can get baby carrots here with happy meals!

  8. this was super interesting to read! my husband worked at mcdonalds in college and has lots of interesting stories about food waste, customers, and coworkers. 🙂 we don’t eat fast food very often- only on trips, usually- so it is always a treat for us but i still do try to eat healthier when i’m there.

  9. 9
    Natalia

    They do serve carrot sticks as a Happy Meal side here in the UK – http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ukhome/product_nutrition.happymeal.41.carrot-sticks.html
    but not baby carrots. I believe McDonalds does respond to their audience; the meat used in the burgers here is 100% British/Irish because the British public as a whole is pretty concerned about that.

    • carrot sticks are even better than baby carrots – yum! and, jealous! we need to move to UK or sweden! 😉

      I think you’re right – it seems like they do respond to their audience to me…and apparently the european audience is a bit pickier than the US! at least, that’s what it seems like to me! 🙂

  10. 10
    Barbara K

    I would be interested in finding out if McDonalds has any plans to offer gluten free food.

  11. Very interesting post, Jane!

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