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Don't Blame McDonald's

Parents are free to choose healthy or unhealthy food for their children. Mom and Dad are the ones driving the family car to the take-out window, ordering, and paying for the meals.

The last thing I ever thought I would be doing is writing a column defending the McDonald’s Corporation's right to market junk food to children. But the recent open letter to McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner, which was signed by more than 550 health professionals and organizations, leaves me no other choice.

While this group correctly identifies the seriousness of childhood obesity, it incorrectly identifies the party/parties responsible for this epidemic and, in the process, over-simplifies the solution. 

The Letter

Written by the nonprofit group Corporate Accountability International, the letter points out facts most of us know:

  • One in three children will develop type 2 diabetes as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise.
  • Childhood obesity has become epidemic.
  • Fast food tends to be unhealthy food.
  • McDonald’s spends nearly $2 billion in advertising annually.
  • The McDonald’s brand – the golden arches and Ronald McDonald – has achieved an extraordinary level of international loyalty from adults and children.

The group asks McDonald’s to "retire their marketing promotions for food high in salt, fat, sugar, and calories to children, whatever form they take – from Ronald McDonald to toy giveaways." If this watchdog group has its way, not only would the famous clown be gone, but Happy Meals would disappear as well.

CEO James Skinner is reported to have responded with the statement that "McDonald’s does not advertise unhealthy food choices to children. It's up to them to choose and their parents to choose."

I believe Mr. Skinner has a valid point.

Where Does the Buck Stop?

It seems to me there are two issues at stake: free enterprise and free choice.

Free enterprise – the heart of our economic and ideological system -- dictates that private businesses are free to pursue profit unless the government determines their products or actions are dangerous to the public interest.

Eventually, the government might step in and only allow fast food with specific salt, fat, and chemical content to be sold to children. It has taken similar action before in regulating the sale of alcohol and cigarettes to minors, and I would strongly support such legislation.

But right now, the McDonald’s marketing practice is completely legal.

Parents, in turn, are free to choose healthy or unhealthy food for their children. Mom and Dad are the ones driving the family car to the take-out window, ordering, and paying for the meals. As adults, they have the power to say yes or no to French fries and sugar-laden soda.

The fact is, to their credit, McDonald’s does offer healthy substitutes for high-carbohydrate, salt and sugar-saturated products. Children can substitute apple slices and milk for fries and soda in the Happy Meal. Again, it's up to Mom and Dad to make that choice.

Education, Not Restriction

Rather than trying to control what McDonald’s sells, why not ask the company to devote a portion of advertising time to educating the public about nutrition? Ronald McDonald would be an ideal spokesperson for this perspective, and public service announcements (PSAs) are relatively inexpensive to produce.

McDonald’s could resume an earlier practice of giving away pedometers with Happy Meals and reward kids each time they reach 10,000 steps. Children could get the more traditional Happy Meal toy for every 50,000 steps they each log within a week.

Perhaps our South Brunswick schools or recreation department could organize activities for kids that involve using the free McDonald’s pedometer. I'm sure the fast-food chain would gladly donate key chains or T-shirts with their logo as prizes. 

And if McDonald’s is reluctant to participate in that activity, I'm sure Burger King, Wendy's or Sonic could be approached.

The Question Remains

Fast food is both unhealthy and expensive. We have no idea of the actual ingredients and/or how much is previously frozen. Often we never find out what the protein source tastes like because it is covered in mystery sauces. 

Blaming McDonald’s or any other fast-food chain for the choices we parents make distracts us from asking why we, as a country, eat out so much. What happened to the tradition of cooking our own food from scratch and eating it around the kitchen table?

Perhaps our mayor can form a task force to address these questions, as well as to explore ways of educating adults and kids about alternatives to fast-food meals. That way, it really wouldn't matter how McDonald’s advertises or what food it sells. 

What are your suggestions?

annamarie May 25, 2011 at 12:19 PM
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Anders Olsson May 25, 2011 at 12:22 PM
Judy! As always you point out very important points. Every one is responsible for their own actions, and as parents there is no more thing important than our own offsprings well-being. Also very important point is that western democracy builds on free enterprise, and free choice. The best thing though, are quite simple that you not only make that clear, but also point out how the society could go forward and make the society a more responsible one, stating regulations on unhealthy food, just as with tobacco and alcohol to minors. I guess if someone would go forward and say that the goverment should take those regulations away in order to protect the free enterprise, that person would be seen as a total nut. Best regards Anders Olsson
Judy Shepps Battle May 25, 2011 at 02:05 PM
Thank you for your comments, Anna marie, Have a great day!
Judy Shepps Battle May 25, 2011 at 02:06 PM
Anders, thank you for your well thought out reply. I agree totally that everyone is responsible for their own actions and that , as parents there is nothing more important than our children's well being.
Ralph Milligan May 26, 2011 at 12:43 AM
In point of fact we <do> outlaw free-enterprise sales of substances which social consensus tells us are too dangerous to be tolerated. But that's usually about the most inefficient and ham-handed way of addressing the problem--as is true in this case. We've made a <lot> of progress (though not enough to suit me) on tobacco without outlawing it--and outlawing beverage alcohol was a brief and disastrous experiment. Judy's right--at the core of this movement is the cry of parents, "Don't make <me> be responsible enough to say 'no' to my kids--let somebody else make it easy for me." We need corproate respossibility, but we also need parents who aren'ts afraid to say "NO!" Responsibility is the pits. But the lack of it is worse.
Judy Shepps Battle May 26, 2011 at 10:59 AM
Thanks, Ralph for your wise comments. I do believe that "outlawing" unhealthy food would only increase its attractiveness to the child/adolescent population and I don't think the government should regulate what we eat or what we weigh. But I do think corporations and role models and even the government should be teachers of facts (and then choice lies with individuals and, for minors, their parents). We must not forget that often the best teachers are wrong choices that we make right.
Gwen Olitsky May 26, 2011 at 11:17 AM
Judy, what a timely topic. Please write more on the subject of parents saying, "it ain't my fault" when their kids make stupid choices. As a grandparent who often has youngsters here, it is tempting to go through a drive-through to get something the kids love for a quick and easy meal. I am glad that their mother has made the children aware of the high salt and fat content of the foods, and on the occasioons that they *do* go for fast food, they ask for the apple slices or carrots option (same at other restaurants offering kids' meals). I firmly believe that as adults, we are responsible for helping our children make good choices. And as a major corporation, McDonalds has a responsibility to demonstrate an awareness of the impact of their products. Offering 'smart choices' is only a start.
Judy Shepps Battle May 26, 2011 at 03:25 PM
Gwen, thanks for your input. You are totally right about parental responsibility and that "do as I say" has to follow "do what I tell you to do" or the latter communication is meaningless. If adults go through the golden arches and order a super-sized Big Mac meal with apple pie on the side but order the "healthy" kids meal for the young folks, the hypocrisy will be duly noted by the young minds.
Gene Rickle May 26, 2011 at 05:05 PM
Judy, another great article. I agree that personal responsibility and accountability should play the major role in guiding kids. Are kids really supposed to believe that everything that is legal is good for them? They need to be taught how to make healthy choices on their own, and no one is in a better position to teach them than their parents. I spend a lot of time teaching kids how to make safe choices. On discussing the dangers of their actions, the kids often ask "well then why don't they make it illegal?" to which I reply that the government can't possibly, and shouldn't, regulate every unhealthy option. As I like to put it to the kids, if you hit yourself in the head with a hammer, you're going to cause damage. Does that mean that we should make hammers illegal? The better answer is for kids to learn not to hit themselves with a hammer.
Bob Werner May 26, 2011 at 06:46 PM
I don't believe that laws should be passed, like the one in San Francisco, banning the sale of Happy Meals..because a toy is offered with a high fat/caloric meal. But I do believe in our government's right to present the pubic with information relative to our education about health and safety...which the extreme among the libertarians are opposed to. I do believe the education that is out there and the advocacy...short of law making...is having a positive effect. I am aware that McDonalds is having a "good nutirition" moment....through its offering of such healtier alternatives as salads, and apple sclices. Unfortunately the salads, like produce in our stores is not cheap. Another factor that must not be overlooked is McDonald's dollar memu...which makes food affordable/available to lower income persons...and also to those living in our poorest and unsafest neighborhoods that have driven out food stores/markets...and if there arent any big markets in these areas, those smaller ones that are...have shown to be far more expensive than those in middle-class areas. Food will continue to get more expensive....I hope that McDonalds will continue to become more pro-active...so Happy Meals will become Healthy Meals too. Bob
mel tremper May 30, 2011 at 11:11 PM
There’s tons of evidence advertising works to induce people to buy what’s advertised. Most of us claim we are immune to marketing ploys but somebody must be influenced by ads otherwise companies that spent billions on ads would put their money to better use. As one commenter noted tobacco use is down. However, tobacco sales to minors are illegal, and a nationwide effort to enforce underage tobacco sales has driven rates of those sales down to 10-15% of what they once were. Meanwhile, the feds banned tobacco advertising aimed at kids. Joe Camel got around the ban for while and national rates of youth tobacco use increased. The feds finally shut that campaign down and youth smoking initiation rates declined. Of course, we can't blame McDonald's exclusively, but the combined impact of companies marketing (pushing) sugar and fat filled junk food has played a large role in feeding the obesity problem. Several commenters blame parents. But parents don't have 24/7 control over their kids. And I suspect many parents don't really believe the "government scare stories" about junk food diets being bad for you. How can some burgers and fries be bad for you? To be fair, McDonalds and other junk food sellers are pitching their wares to a receptive audience. We are wired to love fat and sugar, and some junk food has ingredients that get our brains to want to eat more. So I guess after all it is our own fault for caving in to our biological urges
Judy Shepps Battle May 31, 2011 at 11:01 AM
Gene, I love your example of the hammer! It's so very true that learning to prioritize the "good for you" quality of all of our options (food, relationships, spending) is a lfelong lesson that should begin in the family. And, because the first lessons are taught in the family, they must be modeled, not simply stated. That means educating the adult generation as much as the younger generation (s). It also means that this society would have to change with regard to war, poverty, support of mental and physical health, ethics (and the lesson list could go on). Thanks for pointing this out!
Judy Shepps Battle May 31, 2011 at 11:05 AM
Bob, you raise an excellent point with regard to the high price of healthy food. But know that it is far from cheap to eat at the fast food places either. Yes, the "dollar menu" is there but the really healthy alternatives are not on that dollar menu. Maybe that is something Bill Gates should do with part of his money -- subsidize farm fresh drive through restaurants. Maybe we should suggest that to him?
Judy Shepps Battle May 31, 2011 at 11:10 AM
Mel, you raise some good points re possible hard wire of brains to love addictive foods. But I do believe that if every fast food place was shut down, or fast foods taxed or some other move I would never support -- that people would just go to their supermarkets and graze in their junkfood aisles. I don't think there is any escaping the fact that choice is an important factor regarding healthy practices.

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