Sep 26, 2013 7:44 PM by Posted by Alyse Rzemek
NEW YORK (AP) - Want a side salad with that Big Mac?
McDonald's says it will start giving customers the choice of a salad, fruit or vegetable as a substitute for french fries in its value meals.
McDonald's Corp. will roll out the change early next year in the U.S., where people will be able to pick a salad instead of fries at no extra cost. McDonald's says it already lets customers make such swaps in some countries, such as France.
But now it says it now work to make the options available in 20 of its biggest markets around the world, which represent 85 percent of sales. McDonald's, which has more than 34,000 locations around the world, said the change will be in place in 30 to 50 percent of the areas within the next three years and all the regions by 2020.
The world's biggest hamburger chain made the announcement at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, where CEO Don Thompson made an appearance on stage with former President Bill Clinton.
In an interview before the announcement, Thompson said McDonald's is looking at developing other healthy sides that will appeal to customers. He noted that McDonald's could also take the fruits and vegetables it offers in other parts of the world, such as cups of corn and kiwi on a stick, and make them more widely available.
"What is it that customers will choose, and what will they eat?" Thompson said. "What we don't want to do is just put something on the menu and say, hey, we did it. We really want consumption."
McDonald's also announced that it would use packaging to make healthier options more attractive for kids. For example, a side of carrots might come in a more colorful, appealing bag. Parents will still be able to order soda with Happy Meals, but McDonald's says it will only promote milk, juice and water on menu boards and in advertising. All advertising to kids will include a "fun nutrition or children's well-being" message, the company said.
The changes follow an announcement by rival Burger King on Tuesday that it would launch a new crinkle-cut french fry that it says has about 20 percent fewer calories than its regular fries. They also come as McDonald's faces criticism from health advocates who say it promotes bad eating habits. After years of outperforming its rivals, McDonald's is also struggling to shake its fast-food image and keep up with shifting tastes. Late last year, McDonald's reported its first monthly sales decline in nearly a decade and sales performance around the world has been choppy ever since.
To better reflect the way people are eating, McDonald's recently started giving customers the choice to substitute egg whites in all its breakfast sandwiches. It also rolled out chicken wraps, which are partly intended to go after people who want foods they feel are fresher or healthier, and might head to places such as Subway instead.
McDonald's marketing to children is also an ongoing issue. A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, found that the chain's ads targeting children often emphasize toy giveaways and movie tie-ins, rather than food. And at its latest annual shareholders meeting, a 9-year-old girl made headlines after she stood to ask Thompson to stop "tricking" kids into eating the company's food. The girl was with her mother, who was affiliated with Corporate Accountability, which has pressured McDonald's to changes its marketing practices to kids.
The criticism is clearly a sensitive topic for Thompson, who noted that the Alliance for a Healthier Generation was among the first organizations that approached the company to use its "marketing might" to help kids. The group, which is working with McDonald's on its new health goals, was founded by the Clinton Global Initiative and the American Heart Association.
"Others have said, 'McDonald's, don't advertise to kids,'" Thompson said. "We've always felt like, wow, if we had the impact that you think we have, why don't we leverage it to do something great for kids?"
Howell Wechsler, CEO of Alliance for a Healthier Generation, said the commitments made by McDonald's were worked out over the course of more than a year, with many proposals going back and forth between the two parties. He said the final agreement could help change the way people eat over time, given McDonald's enormous reach.
"We're addressing access, we're addressing affordability, and we're addressing the attractiveness for the consumer," Wechsler said.