NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn says McDonald’s is unfairly a target of online complaints.

Nancy, I feel bad for McDonald’s.

If someone is angry about something — virtually anything — he or she seems to blame the country’s highest-grossing restaurant chain.

Are your kids fat? McDonald’s did it. Do you think minimum wage is too low? McDonald’s should pay its employees more. Do you suspect that the nation’s chickens are unhappy? McDonald’s should use cage-free eggs. Concerned about global warming? McDonald’s should sell hamburgers from animals that produce less methane.


RELATED
Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn weigh in on GMOs
Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn look back at 2013 menu trends
More food and beverage news


McDonald’s often gets swatted down for responding to this outrage. Some years ago, at a conference of the Public Health Advocacy Institute — the group based at Northeastern University in Boston that worked to remove sodas from schools and get restaurant chains to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards — a presenter complained about McDonald’s promoting fitness education in schools. She said it was a covert attempt to give impressionable minds positive feelings about the brand. I don’t think it was covert at all, but it did encourage kids to exercise.

The latest anti-McDonald’s tirade that irritates me is vegan self-help author Kathy Freston’s petition on Change.org to get the Golden Arches to provide her with a meatless meal.

She started out as condescending, but not unreasonable. In a release sent to me by Change.org, Freston was quoted as saying: “McDonald’s has an opportunity to make a smart business decision that can benefit millions of Americans looking to fight heart disease and obesity. I know there will be skeptics wondering what role fast food can play in solving the nation’s health problems, but this is all about progress, not perfection, and I’m inspired by 50,000 consumers who are supporting my campaign on Change.org.”

To date, more than 97,000 people have signed the petition, and celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres, Russell Simmons and Alicia Silverstone have chimed in to support it.

McDonald’s responded thusly: “At this time, we have many menu items that can be customized without meat, like our Premium McWraps and Salads, as well as many breakfast options that are available to order without meat and still provide a source of protein. In our experience, menu items at McDonald’s are most successful when enough customers choose to select them. It allows us to ensure freshness of ingredients and overall quality of the food item. We’ll continue to evolve our menu to meet the changing preferences of our customers.”

My interpretation of that: If enough customers ask for it, McDonald’s will sell it to them, although I’m not sure why the company didn’t mention the oatmeal it offers during all dayparts.

And Freston’s snotty response, sent to me by Change.org:

"I hope they know McLettuce won't do the trick! I would love to meet with McDonald's because they seem to mistakenly believe that a healthy plant-based option means eating a tortilla with lettuce. McDonald's talks about customer choice and evolving their menu, yet their solution is to remove ingredients rather than replace them with nutritious and delicious options that will reduce risk of heart disease, obesity, and many other problems facing the country. Whether you're someone looking into healthier choices or choose vegetarian or vegan options for ethical  reasons, we all want something hearty, traditional, and fulfilling. I look forward to continuing this discussion with them as more supporters join me on Change.org every day."

Leaving aside the specious claim that vegetarian food is by definition more healthful than food with meat in it, and the fact that, if you ask me, oatmeal and a fruit smoothie make for a fine meal — albeit one with just five grams of protein — what’s up with Freston’s public shaming and condescension? If she doesn’t like what McDonald’s has to offer, there are plenty of other quick-service restaurants she can visit. She herself notes that Burger King, Subway and others have meatless options that she approves of.

McDonald’s isn’t the only target of public petitioning. Subway recently said it would remove the dough conditioner azodicarbonamide from its bread after food blogger Vani Hari got 50,000 people to sign a petition on her blog, foodbabe.com, asking that it do just that.

And Freston isn’t the only petitioner to go after McDonald’s on Change.org. More than 64,000 people have signed a petition to “stop torturing hens for Egg McMuffins” (biased much?); 318,000 have petitioned McDonald’s to stop paying employees with debit cards; 104,000 signed one asking the chain not to open a large location across from a kindergarten in an Australian town. Other less popular petitions include one to get McDonald’s to bring back Hot Mustard sauce — 472 people have signed that one. Another, to bring back Angus burgers, has 58 supporters. There are, of course, many others.

What do you think, Nancy? Is this relatively new way of drawing public attention to the demands of assorted individuals merely a nuisance? A threat? Or, on the other hand, is it a useful and free tool for gauging public interest in various causes?

Worthwhile concerns drowned out

The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on online petitioners.

You ask a good question, Bret. Whether these digital gadflies are a boon or a bane to restaurant marketers, they're not going away. Emboldened by the ease of making their voices heard and empowered by the responses they provoke, their numbers will continue to grow. And because of the fundamental importance of the food industry in general and restaurants in particular, we will remain right in their crosshairs.

No foodservice operator is a bigger target than McDonald's, of course. Its ubiquity on street corners and television screens everywhere constitutes a big, juicy bull's eye. I totally share your exasperation with many of its critics — the ones who seem especially intent on scoring points, grinding axes and grabbing attention. The jeopardy, it seems to me, is that legitimate criticism may be overlooked and worthwhile concerns unaddressed because they're drowned out by the relentlessly increasing noise level.

It's clear that the success of many self-styled, modern muckrakers has encouraged legions of others. A couple of years ago, Bettina Siegel, a prominent mommy blogger in Houston, used an online petition to force the USDA to stop using lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) in school lunches. Unfortunately dubbed "pink slime," the substance is perfectly safe for consumption, but her efforts led to a media firestorm and the disappearance of the product from lunch trays and even some quick-service chains.

In an editorial, The New York Times called the episode unfair, noting that the only people hurt by LFTB were the 650 workers who lost their jobs when its major supplier was forced to shut down. There's a direct line from Ms. Siegel's activities to Ms. Freston's. 

These are heady days, as the power of the Internet has turned regular folks into critics and, unfortunately, encouraged bad behavior in many quarters. You and I have commented on and commiserated about this numerous times in the past, when we've looked at customers who demand special treatment in return for a good online review or chefs who take to Twitter to shame their no-shows or otherwise sass their customers.

So, Bret, what should operators do in the face of rising digital activism? One approach is to follow McDonald's lead. The object of unceasing pressure, the corporation has consistently responded in measured tones by pointing out that it is in the business of pleasing its patrons — the ones who make their feelings known with their wallets, not the number of followers they've amassed. 

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at nancykruse@aol.com.