OAK BROOK, ILL. — McDonald's is attempting to speak to health-conscious Americans by freshening up its McIngredients.
The company announced Monday that it is removing artificial preservatives from the iconic Chicken McNuggets as well as from breakfast items such as pork sausage patties, omelet-style eggs and scrambled eggs. Additionally, the company has removed high-fructose corn syrup from its hamburger buns this month, and they have completed a commitment, a year early, to only serve chicken free of antibiotics that are important to human medicine.
About 30 journalists and bloggers were invited to McDonald's headquarters to hear the news firsthand, the topics a closely guarded secret. It turned out, unlike recent debuts like "breakfast all day" or the value-minded McPick 2 menu, the announcement was about omissions.
Mike Andres, president of McDonald's USA, outlined a series of changes aimed at improving the nutrition of the 25 million meals served each day at more than 14,000 locations.
"People care about what is in their food," Andres said. "The simpler the better. That's why we've been on this food journey."
In 2015, McDonald's announced it would source milk from cows not treated with rbST, an artificial hormone used to increase milk production. It ditched margarine in favor of real butter. This year, the salad blend's iceberg was swapped in favor of Tuscan red leaf lettuce, and Cuties clementines were added as a Happy Meal seasonal fruit option.
The cynical among us may point to the high-fructose corn syrup still in the ketchup, right on the label. Antibiotics may be phased out for chicken and for dairy cows, but there's no mention of a time frame to do the same with beef. And McDonald's commitment to serving only cage-free eggs is way off in 2025.
Aren't some of these changes too little, too late?
"We're about making purposeful change," says Marion Gross, senior vice president of supply chain for McDonald's USA. "Over the past year and a half, we've accelerated the pace of change. … When you have a supply chain that is as big as ours — our grocery basket is huge — sometimes things don't work as quickly as you like."
Gross gave an example of the thought behind these changes and their possible effect: When they started serving apples with Happy Meals, they had to make sure there were suppliers who could meet their demand.
"Since we started, we've served 2 billion apple slices. That's the equivalent of 60 million apples, more than 10 percent of sliced apples in U.S."
Industry analysts will link these announcements to the fast-food giant's disappointing second-quarter sales numbers, released last week. With a 4 percent decline over the prior-year period and weak same-store sales growth, maybe McDonald's is running scared? Certainly Don Thompson's tenure as president and chief executive, before he stepped down in 2015, was marked by an avalanche of changes and new initiatives that served to muddy the message.
But before we conclude that McDonald's sales number indicate systemic problems, it should be noted that fast food has taken a hit all over. Sonic's numbers fell. Taco Bell same-store sales dropped and Wendy's is projecting sales figures short of its goals. Some of this, said Andres, is because grocery prices are falling and more people are packing their own lunches.
Chipotle was among the first major chains to make ethical food choices a core part of its message (food safety issues have since proved vexing for that brand), but more recently major players like Wendy's, P.F. Chang's and California Pizza Kitchen have gotten in on it. Buzzwords like "local," "sustainable" and "responsibly raised" are rippling through the industry. McDonald's is one of the pack, but because of its size and scale, even incremental changes have the potential to move the needle in the zeitgeist.
Andres said Monday's announcements affect half of the core menu items at McDonald's, but that despite the changes, at least for now, the products won't cost more for consumers.
The journalists assembled were treated to a breakfast and lunch of the newly preservative-free items and buns free of high-fructose corn syrup.
Bottom line: It tasted the same. In addition, new regional and specialty items such as a scrambled egg and chorizo bowl or the Gilroy garlic fries seemed like winners.
Still, though, this is fast food, a category that has always been thought of as an unhealthy choice. Aren't Andres and the McDonald's executive team swimming against the tide?
"The narrative around fast food is that competitors are looking for ways to differentiate themselves," Andres concluded. "What we want to get through to consumers is that all of the ingredients we use, they serve a purpose. Ultimately, as we see the future, there's no reason if you care about the food that you eat, that we couldn't deliver."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.