Last week, McDonald's announced its latest attempt to mutate into a
responsible corporate citizen. Starting in 2006, the fast food behemoth
promises to place nutrition information on the "packaging" of most menu
Placing aside corporate spin, questions loom large as to actual impact and
underlying motivation. Upon closer inspection, the move is a thinly veiled
attempt at deflecting government intervention that could have even greater
How effective is seeing the calories on the wrapper of a cheeseburger you∂ve
already purchased? Imagine if at the grocery store, after buying all your
food, along with your change you're handed the nutrition facts labels from
each of the items you just bought. It's no wonder the law requiring
nutrition labeling on products sold in stores wasn't written that way. Doing
so would defeat the purpose of educating consumers to better inform their
The McDonald's press release calls the move "the latest transparency
initiative in the company's 30-year record of providing nutrition
information to help customers make informed choices." Now that∂s creative
rewriting of history. Let∂s go back precisely 30 years to when McDonald's
fought off a federal proposal to require nutrition labeling on packaging.
Ironically, the company used the same arguments that consumer groups now
point to as the limitations of this approach.
For example, a 1975 letter from McDonald's to the Food and Drug
[Information on packaging] would result in only post-purchase communication
to the customer. "[McDonald's proposed wall mounting] would provide all
customers the nutritional information prior to consummating a purchase."
McDonald's won that battle.
History repeated itself 15 years later when McDonald's (along with the rest
of the restaurant industry) successfully got itself exempt from the updated
∏Nutrition Facts∑ labeling requirements for packaged food. According to
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public
Interest (CSPI), the main consumer group behind the legislation, if
restaurants had been covered in 1990, that bill never would have passed.
Politics by ultimatum works wonders.
That's why consumer groups such as CSPI have been lobbying for the past
several years to pass new laws requiring restaurant chains to place basic
nutrition information on menus and menu boards, to fill in this gaping hole
in consumer information. With Americans eating half of all meals outside the
home, why shouldn't chain restaurants be required to provide calorie, fat,
and sodium content on menus and menu boards, where it would have the most
impact? Marketers call such placement at the "point-of-purchase" and
recognize that it's the most effective way of influencing consumer behavior
Yet the National Restaurant Association, whose members include thousands of
McDonald's franchises, has been fighting tooth and nail against both federal
and state bills, which explains why none of them has passed so far. When
asked why the fast food chain won∂t go further and put the information on
menu boards, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner claimed that it would be too complex
and slow down service.
But Maine Representative Sean Faircloth doesn't buy that argument.
Restaurant lobbyists have twice killed his bill to require the posting of
calories on menu boards. Why so much resistance from restaurant chains?
"Because they're worried that it would work," Faircloth says. "That people
would change their behavior based on the information. And fast food
companies don't like the idea of people having information so they can make
informed choices," he said.
That similar legislation is currently pending in several other states in
part explains the timing of McDonald's announcement. If lawmakers think that
corporations are improving policy on their own, they may deem these bills
unnecessary. However, we have plenty of experience to know that voluntary,
self-regulatory measures ultimately fail.
Last year, Ruby Tuesday received much praise from consumer groups for
starting to print calorie information on its menus. But just a few short
months later, the company rescinded the policy for reasons that are unclear.
Depending on who you ask, it was either too expensive to maintain or sales
of the company∂s unhealthy items fell; in other words, it worked. Either
way, access to more information may be good for public health, but it can
also be bad for business. That's why laws are needed to require companies to
change their practices. As soon as any voluntary measure negatively impacts
a corporation∂s bottom line, the policy soon becomes a fleeting moment in
Despite their claims of corporate responsibility, companies such as
McDonald's don't act in the interest of consumers, but rather will do
whatever is politically expedient in that particular moment. Three decades
ago, the threat was government-regulated packaged labeling, and McDonald's
fought that off successfully. Now the threat is menu labeling, so the
company is attempting to deflect attention by providing something far less
effective: labels on wrappers.
CEO Skinner says the company is "putting the information customers need
literally into their hands," which works out well for McDonald's because by
then, the cheeseburgers, fries, and shakes are also already in their hands.
Michele Simon, a public-health attorney who teaches health policy at UC
Hastings College of the Law, directs the Center for Informed Food Choices, a
nonprofit in Oakland.