By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The only obstacle between kids and their french fries: Mom.
So here is Debra DeMuth, McDonald's global nutrition director, mounting a spirited defense of fries to five mothers of young children at a McDonald's in Baltimore.
"They are probably one of the most victimized foods," DeMuth says.
Plausible reason: A medium order at McDonald's, besides the delectable taste, includes 380 calories, 270 milligrams of sodium and a color preservative called sodium acid pyrophosphate. But DeMuth presses her case, pointing out that fries are rich in potassium, adding, "They are also a really good source of fiber."
One mom replies, "Once you throw them in grease, you kind of ruin it."
Another says, "Potassium is good in bananas."
This is the tricky dialogue that results when the world's largest fast-food chain extols the quality of its food to a group of people -- busy moms -- who often need food fast but don't necessarily trust fast food, especially with worries over obesity sweeping the nation. But McDonald's thinks it has a positive case to make and has recruited mothers to go behind the scenes of the company's operations, meet senior executives and then communicate what they see via the Web, along with appearing in video of their travels.
The idea behind the company's Quality Correspondents program: If McDonald's can win over moms by showcasing food quality (the eggs in Egg McMuffins are real) and highlighting healthful options, the company can brighten its image at a crucial time in the arc of the fast-food industry. Customers, bombarded with news about food recalls, are paying more attention to safety, quality and ingredients -- despite still not wanting to wait very long for their lunch. The message takes on heightened importance now, as strapped parents bargain in their heads over whether a McDonald's meal can take the place of higher-priced options.
McDonald's began the Quality Correspondents program nationally last year and recently expanded it to five moms in the Washington region who were selected from several hundred women who responded to TV ads asking for volunteers. The mothers are not paid. More than 83,000 people have followed the first iteration of the program online.
"McDonald's has a problem," said New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of "What to Eat." "They're big, so they are an easy target. They sell junk food, and they market it to kids at a time when public obesity is a major public concern. So what are they going to do? Turn into a health-food company? I don't think they can do that. Somebody must have figured out that what they need is good PR on transparency. Those mothers are willing to be used for that purpose."
One of the moms, Veronica Gilmore, from Edinburg, Va., said no one tried to tell her what to say. "We've been told to tell our perspective on things," she said. "That's all we can ask for."
McDonald's executives are betting that if they can shatter myths about the company's food -- a slaughterhouse visit shows chickens being handled humanely but also proves McNuggets contain chicken -- and display an obsessiveness with food safety and quality to a select group of moms, the message will trickle through society.
Jerry Swerling, director of the University of Southern California's Strategic Public Relations Center, said McDonald's is attempting to capitalize on a significant shift in who consumers most trust for information.
"When people are asked to define who they trust and who they believe, the answer is people like themselves, not journalists and not academics," Swerling said. A recent Edelman study showed most Americans think "a person like me" is the most credible source for company information. "Word of mouth is not just a different kind of messenger," the study said. "It's a fundamental change in the traditional value system of information."
The Internet offers a fast word-of-mouth tool, and McDonald's is featuring the moms with diaries and video on its Web site.
But the company still has explaining to do on fries, which contain not only potatoes, and all their fiber, but citric acid, dextrose and sodium acid pyrophosphate. "Why do the french fries have so many ingredients in them? Seeing all those ingredients listed raises some red flags for me," LaShawna Fitzpatrick of Encino, Calif., wrote on the Quality Correspondent Web site.
With the camera rolling, DeMuth stood her ground. "There is just a lot of misunderstanding out there," she said. "You really need to look at the facts."
Gilmore, a mother of three, replied, "You're not going to be able to sell me on fries."
No one, Nestle said, is saying fast food doesn't have nutritional value: "What it also has is a great deal of processing, which removes nutrients, and a great deal of things added that you don't need in order to make it more palatable."
Although some of the moms said they thought McDonald's was responding to "Super Size Me," a 2004 documentary in which a filmmaker ate McDonald's daily and charted his body's deterioration, executives dismissed such notions. "This program wasn't in response to anything," said Tara Hayes, manager of U.S. communications at McDonald's. "We saw this as a great opportunity to give the facts and let people make up their minds for themselves. You can take it or leave it."
McDonald's is gambling that even if the moms say negative things -- one said the food contains too much sodium -- the company will win points for transparency.
The first bit of myth-busting came when the moms, followed by a video crew, crowded into the walk-in refrigerator at the Baltimore restaurant. There were eggs stacked in a corner. Kelle Evans, a single mother from Woodbridge, said, "What are these eggs for?" Answer: McDonald's makes Egg McMuffins with them. Evans was stunned.
"When I think of fast food, I don't think of them back there breaking eggs open and cooking them," she said in an interview.
But although the McDonald's officials showed how the eggs were cracked on the grill, they didn't offer a similar lesson with the scrambled eggs, which are made with liquid eggs. McDonald's officials said the liquid eggs are identical in quality to liquid eggs at grocery stores.
Evans was also surprised to see that the salads are made individually, with bagged lettuce. The woman making the salad wore tight plastic gloves. But Evans wasn't pleased a few weeks later when she visited another McDonald's and saw an employee making salads with her bare hands. "I got a parfait and left," Evans said. "I was grossed out."
On the Web, much bandwidth is devoted to a tour of the nearby bun bakery. The mothers donned white lab coats and hairnets to tour the factory, where the temperature was more than 100 degrees. The video uploaded from the tour occasionally shows the camera focusing on food-safety signs. The moms are also shown how the machines bounce unworthy buns off the conveyer belts.
In her journal entry, Michele Crosby, a Greenbelt mother of two boys, wrote that on her way home she stopped for a burger at McDonald's.
"I looked at the bun with new eyes," she wrote. "This time I was amazed that the bun I received looked just like the ones I had seen produced at the factory earlier. I definitely thought of all the safety standards, production innovations and pride that went into making it. Corny as it sounds, I will never look at a McDonald's bun the same way again!"