McBait and switch: McDonald’s health pledge contradicted by the fine print

One of the pledges was particularly exciting. McDonald’s committed to “only promote and market water, milk and juice as beverages in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.” Happy Meal customers would still be able to get a soda as part of the meal, but it would no longer be the default beverage. Health advocates applauded.  When only healthier drinks are promoted/marketed as part of a kid’s meal, kids will choose them with far greater frequency.

Just as some health advocates (myself included) began to celebrate, two intrepid food reformers, Casey Hinds of kyhealthykids, and public health attorney Michele Simon, found the actual text of the agreement. And what they learned, with respect to Happy Meal beverages, roundly contradicted the McDonald’s/AHG announcement:
 “McDonald's may list soft drinks as (sic) offering on (sic) Happy Meal section of menu boards.”

ADVERTISEMENT
So much for McDonald’s commitment to kids’ health.  And so much for the veracity of its press conference. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) put out a strongly worded press release:

“McDonald’s and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation misled the media, CSPI, and families when they stated that the company would not feature, promote, or market soda in connection with Happy Meals. In briefings to health groups and in their press release and full-page newspaper ads, McDonald’s and the Alliance claimed that the company would “promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.” But small print in McDonald’s formal agreement with the Alliance states that ‘McDonald’s may list soft drinks as [sic] offering on [sic] Happy Meal section of menu boards.’ ”

None too pleased, CSPI issued a warning, and reminded McDonald’s about the last time it failed to follow through on a commitment:

“CSPI will be monitoring McDonald’s practices and will consider suing the company if it mentions soft drinks in the Happy Meal section of menu boards or any other type of marketing, or if servers offer soft drinks as an option with the meals. We hope that McDonald’s keeps its commitment, as it did not do in 2003 when it said that it would stop frying its foods in oil containing trans fat. In fact, it took a lawsuit to get McDonald’s to eventually keep that commitment.”

As of today, McDonald’s and AHG have yet to publicly announce and/or share a redrawn agreement that addresses the Happy Meal beverage issue.

What options do advocates and consumers have to ensure that McDonald’s lives up to its public pledge to promote and market only water, milk and juice with the Happy Meal?  There are a few.  The current agreement states “McDonald's would retain an independent, reputable third party organization to verify our progress on commitments in a clear and transparent manner.” We need to make sure that happens and that progress reports are publicly shared. As mentioned earlier, a watchdog organization like CSPI can file a lawsuit to force McDonald’s to keep its commitment.  In addition, reporters can be encouraged to follow up on whether McDonald’s has made good on its promises.

But the truth is McDonald’s has already gotten the headlines and press coverage it desired for this pledge, whether it follows through or not. I’d like to think that AHG and President Clinton would stand alongside public health advocates to criticize McDonald’s if it fails to live up to its promises, but I’m not holding my breath.

Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, has long warned advocates that they should approach these types of food industry agreements cautiously. “McDonald’s has a long history of promises it doesn’t keep,” said Simon. She advises that we look beyond the rosy press conference pledges and ask to see all Big Food health promises in writing.  From now on, I’ll follow her advice to a T.

Huehnergarth is a national food policy activist, journalist, coalition leader and president of Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting.