Healthy eating up to the customer, McDonald’s says

by Monica Watrous
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NEW YORK — For McDonald’s Corp., it may seem like a supersized dilemma: Offer a healthier menu or serve customers their coveted fattening fare?

It’s a matter of social responsibility versus sales, said Don Thompson, president and chief executive officer, who addressed the topic during the Sanford C. Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference in New York on May 29.

“Today, we are in this time period where people are defining quote-unquote ‘healthy’ and ‘non-healthy,’” Mr. Thompson said. “And the question really is, in the restaurant business, what does the customer want? … Whatever it is a customer wants, we will be selling more than anyone else.”

He added: “Now having said that, do we feel we have a social responsibility, if you would, to provide more fruits and vegetables? To a certain extent, when it is related to children. But at the same time, we are not the parents of everyone else’s child. But for me and my children, I love them going to McDonald’s because I know that there is choice, and I know where our food comes from, and I know it’s safe.”

McDonald’s in past years has made efforts to balance its menu with better-for-you options, including this year’s introductions of an egg-white breakfast sandwich, grilled chicken wraps and hamburger buns with more whole grains. However, the chain’s top growth categories are beef and chicken – not salads, which represent about 2% to 3% of sales, Mr. Thompson said.

“I’m still bullish on salads, but not bullish to the extent that I wouldn’t take that window and put a Quarter Pounder line or chicken sandwiches or wings or something else in that window,” he said. “I don’t see salads being a major growth driver in the near future.”

Ultimately, he added, taste trumps in the food business.

“When you are in the food business, we have to be about the food first and the taste of the food, and then we have to provide choices so customers are able to balance their menus and meals out,” he said.

He encourages customers to moderate their menu choices at the fast-food chain.

“Whether you are a parent, whether you are an individual, we want to make sure we provide you the options so you can come in and get whatever you want at McDonald’s,” he said. “So, one day, get that Big Mac. It’s only 540 calories. Another day, you might want to get that grilled chicken salad with balsamic vinaigrette. Don’t go and get the ranch – get the balsamic. … And so I think that balance is really important to people.”

As for his personal diet? Mr. Thompson said he eats McDonald’s every day and has lost 20 lbs in the past year – from exercise.
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