Monday, December 04, 2006

'Yes, we can. Er, no we can't.'

Ronald McDonald should be redrafting his holiday gift list to put “walkie-talkies for all executives” smack at the top. Maybe then they’d say the same thing about McDonald’s readiness for New York City’s planned trans-fat restrictions, which are expected to be approved Tuesday.

Instead, the public pronouncements have shown little of the chain’s famous consistency. A few weeks ago, CEO Jim Skinner told a group of portfolio managers that McDonald’s would be ready to replace its partially hydrogenated fryer oil with a zero-trans-fat variety if the restriction on restaurants is adopted. His assurance was reported in a slew of news reports, including the lead story of a recent Nation’s Restaurant News.

Then, on Thursday, articles in The Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal had the chain singing a much-different tune (“We’re not lovin’ it”?) Granted, that revised assessment came second-hand. Both papers said they’d been told by Peter Vallone Jr., a city councilman best known for being the son of a like-named political luminary, that McDonald’s would not be able to comply with the measure in its current form until June 2008. Yet the restriction on restaurants’ use of the artery clogger would be put in place a year earlier. The younger Vallone said he’d been given that message by a McDonald’s lobbyist, Patrick Thiesen.

Both publications tried to check the assertion with McDonald’s, but the company would neither confirm nor deny the reports. However, a spokesperson told the Journal that the chain would indeed be able to comply with the ban if it’s enacted.


Clearly some spin-doctoring is being done here. But the proponents aren’t staying on message. Can McDonald’s comply or not? At other times, representatives have suggested that the chain couldn’t switch to a trans-fat-free oil at this point because the choices available would affect the taste of the famous McDonald’s French fries. Yet the Golden Arch-studded restaurants in Australia, among other places, have already made the switch.

Are we to believe that McDonald’s simultaneously a) can’t make the switch; b) actually can make the switch; c) would never sacrifice the taste of its fries; d) doesn’t have an oil ready that will preserve the current gold-standard taste of its signature side dish; e) will indeed make the change if required? All simultaneously? Even Hogwarts couldn’t deliver that sort of magic.

Ronald McDonald’s title is technically chief smile officer. But with that kind of hedging, he’s might be getting some memos from the top about excessive frowning.

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