Friday, October 28, 2005

Labeling it right

It’s been three days since McDonald’s surrendered to the Dark Side, and we’re still looking for cracks in the earth. It’s a development the industry has tried to prevent for years, with dire predictions of money being torched, operations getting horribly snarled, and customers tossing down their purchases in disgust. And all for the sake of some over-zealous do-gooders who think, quite foolishly, that it will have a profound social impact.

In short, the legion of opponents said, there’s no way nutritional information could be included on restaurant-food containers. It’s just not feasible, affordable or functional.

And yet McDonald’s said on Tuesday that it plans to do exactly that next year.

An executive of the chain once observed that she could create a worldwide sesame-seed shortage merely by modifying the specs for McDonald’s buns. More recently, the fast-food giant in effect handed the orchard business a winning Power Ball lottery ticket by agreeing to sell apple slices as a side. It’d like to start selling edamame, but there may not be enough soybeans the world over to do it. The scale of the operation is almost unfathomable.

But it’s confident that it can start listing information—similar to the nutritional data printed on grocery-food boxes—on the wraps and containers for Big Macs, Chicken Selects, and almost every other food sold by the chain. It took two years of development and tests, but the home office is certain it can do it without going broke.

We’ve been waiting for a mob of competitors to grab a noose and start looking for a branch stout enough to support the mighty McDonald’s. Resentment must be running as high as it did in the 1980s, when a burgermeister of the chain made a flip remark about the minimum wage having little effect on the business—just as the trade was combating a proposed pay-floor hike by stressing the damage it’d wreak industrywide.

Here, too, the industry took a stand: Labeling, it said, just couldn't be done. Yet McDonald's piped up on Tuesday with assurances that it can.

The industry has been remarkably quiet then, which suggests there’s more resignation than anger out there. Maybe the other chains realize the time has come to throw in the napkin and just do it, especially now that they’ll look socially insensitive otherwise. McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner has publicly urged them to make the same move, even if it blunts a distinction that might be favorably regarded by fast-food shoppers. The benefit of shielding the whole sector from social reproach (and perhaps legal challenge) seems more important to Skinner. It’s a brave new attitude.

But the industry’s opponents in the health debate also have to accept some new realities. For one thing, McDonald’s and the fast-food chains planning to follow suit are dropping their resistance voluntarily, not because of a poke from lawmakers. So legislative proposals mandating labeling should be shelved. If the issue is the release of information, and the industry is meeting that demand on its own, why slap the trade with heavy-handed requirements and sanctions? At the very least, restaurateurs would have to prove their compliance in some fashion, and that means another complication in a business that’s already dauntingly complex.

Second, this doesn’t change the industry’s objection that labeling won’t work for full-service restaurants, and independents in particular. There’s just too much customization, even within the multi-unit systems. True standardization has been gone since Tom Cruise seemed normal.

It would also be in the interest of everyone to hold off sniping for a bit. But Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was quoted the very next day as saying McDonald’s plan isn't ambitious enough. He wants the information posted on menu boards, where customers can see the data before they order. With the planned set up, they won’t know a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese packs 730 calories until they buy one.

The likelihood that patrons will remember that distinction the next time they order is something Jacobson seems to have overlooked.

He also told The New York Times that he’d like fast-food chains to warn patrons of super-caloric meals, like a bundled deal that topped the 1,000-calorie mark.

The CSPI and the other nutrition nags should realize that the industry moves in steps, not radical leaps. They fail to understand that commercial entitites need to figure out how they can make a change without losing money. Otherwise, the suggestion will be met with pitched resistance, as labeling long had been.

Few could have predicted a few years ago that McDonald’s would even consider what it’ll start doing in a few months. And now it's happening. Give the trade a chance.

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