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.
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 schools or recreation departments 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 local officials 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.