McDonald's announced its new partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation on Thursday, a move created in part to increase fruit and vegetable options on the ubiquitous chain's menu.
McDonald's worked with the alliance — an organization founded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association — to develop a comprehensive plan for 20 of the restaurant chain's largest markets, which represent 85 percent of its global sales.
These changes are expected to be in place in up to 50 percent of the proposed markets within the next three years, and 100 percent by 2020.
New side options
Part of the plan includes providing a side salad, fruit or vegetable as a substitute for French fries in value meals. The healthier options will vary by market and will be available at no extra cost. Such substitutions already exist in a handful of markets, including France, according to the Associated Press.
During Thursday's announcement, which was made at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, McDonald's CEO Don Thompson said the chain is exploring additional side options that appeal to its customers.
"What we don't want to do is just put something on the menu and say, 'hey, we did it.' We really want consumption," he said.
Happy Meal advertising shift
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Additionally, the plan includes a shift in Happy Meal messaging, starting with the promotion of water, milk and juice only. This messaging purposefully excludes soda and will be presented on menu boards, as well as in external advertising campaigns.
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, applauded this move, calling it "historic progress," and calling for other major QSRs such as Burger King and Wendy's to adopt a similar strategy.
"Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes, and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids," Wootan told AdAge.
Packaging and other marketing materials will also be tweaked. Happy Meal packaging will be designed to "generate excitement for fruit, vegetable, low/reduced-fat dairy or water options," according to a news release.
In addition, Happy Meal boxes or bag panels will communicate a "fun nutrition or children's well-being message." And, 100 percent of all advertising directed toward children will include a "fun" nutrition or well-being-based message.
"This is an essential step in the fight against obesity. Effective promotion of healthier choices can have a substantial impact on the food and beverage choices that get made," said Dr. Howell Wechsler, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. "It is imperative for McDonald's and other industry leaders to leverage their market share and cultural relevance to help inform and influence the way families eat outside the home."
McDonald's has been working to improve the branding around its signature kids' offering since 2011, when it added apple slices and a smaller French fry portion.
In 2012, McDonald's introduced a new, national Happy Meal campaign that included TV ads promoting nutrition and active lifestyles. These moves are part of an effort to deflect ongoing criticism from some city councils, such as San Francisco's, and advocacy groups, including the CSPI, which filed a lawsuit against McDonald's in late 2010 for marketing toward kids.
The CSPI said Thursday's announcement is a "major advancement" for McDonald's in its "slow march toward healthier meals," but added that there is still a long way to go.
Thompson acknowledged that there was more work to do, but added that the partnership with the Clinton Foundation and Alliance for a Healthier Generation is an important step.
"We will continue to use our size and scale around the world to help educate, empower and encourage our customers to make informed choices so they can live a balanced and healthy lifestyle," he said.
To ensure progress on these initiatives, McDonald's will retain an independent, third-party organization for verification.
These commitments build on the nutrition initiatives already underway in many countries. During Thursday's event, McDonald's USA also announced progress related to nutrition goals set in 2011. They are outlined in a report available at mcdonalds.com/nutrition.
"If we want to curb the catastrophic economic and health implications of obesity across the world we need more companies to follow McDonald's lead and to step up to the plate and make meaningful changes. I applaud them for doing it," President Clinton said during Thursday's event.
The 20 markets that will adopt these changes include: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China (includes Hong Kong market), France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom and the U.S.
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