“We’ll continue to sell Happy Meals,” said Mr Skinner, in the face of a ban that does not become effective until December 2011. The new rule “really takes personal choice away from families who are more than capable of making their own decisions”.
Mr Skinner’s message was aimed beyond San Francisco, at the growing legion of “food police” who blame McDonald’s for contributing to an epidemic of obesity in the US and other developed nations.
“We’ve seen many years of someone trying to dictate behaviour through legislation,” he said. “Our Happy Meals have been supported by parents since the 1970s. The nutrition of Happy Meals, which include apples, meets FDA guidelines. We sell choices on the menu that make our customers feel better about their lifestyle.”
In the past 20 years, McDonald’s has moved beyond hamburgers and Chicken McNuggets to offer healthier options ranging from salads and wraps tofruit-based smoothies.
However, as the world’s largest fast-food restaurant chain with 32,000 stores in 117 countries, McDonald’s remains synonymous with junk food in the eyes of many, in the way that Altria became a proxy for the tobacco industry.
McDonald’s thus often finds itself in the crosshairs of regulators and activists who portray it as everything from the root cause of the US obesity epidemic to the primary culprit behind the problems associated with globalisation.
The company might win some battles over Happy Meals, but the larger direction of the “healthy food” war is not in its favour, said Eric Dezenhall, a communications consultant.
“Even though I think their approach to pushback is a good one, in the long run, it’s hard to fight what is really a cultural movement,” he said. “As with cigarettes or Humvees, that never-ending drumbeat takes a long-term toll that will force a company to be more nimble about its product offerings, which they are doing.”