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, says the change will be in place in 30 to 50 percent of the areas within the next three years and 100 percent 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 the company 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 says. "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 its packaging to make healthier options more appealing to kids. For example, a side of carrots might come in a more colorfully designed 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.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says taking soda off the menu as an option for Happy Meals is a big step that other fast-food chains should follow. But she says the push to include positive nutrition messages in ads to kids could serve to give McDonald's a "health halo" that it doesn't necessarily deserve.
"The changes McDonald's are making make the food somewhat healthier. But I don't think a hamburger, some applies and fries is something I'd call healthy," she says.
The announcement comes 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, the company 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. Earlier in the week, rival Burger King rolled out lower-calorie french fries, reflecting the growing demand for better-for-you options.
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 nine-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, says the commitments made by McDonald's were worked out over the course of more than a year. He says the final agreement could help change the way people eat over time, given McDonald's enormous reach.