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Can McDonald's do transparency?

Declining profits has the fast food giant rethinking its priorities

The frustration was palpable among representatives of two of the more maligned actors in the Big Food biz, here at the Institute of Food Technologists annual trade show in the heartland capital of Chicago on Sunday.

The subject was transparency, and representatives of McDonald’s and the North American Meat Institute revealed that dedicated PR and “transparency” efforts do indeed pay off against the slings and arrows from the likes of Jamie Oliver and Food Babe.

In the case of McDonald’s, transparency came about because profits have collapsed 30 percent in the last year, a withering indictment of Mickey D’s cheap, crappy food reputation in an age of consumer empowerment. But after a months-long effort at engaging consumers that began in the fall of 2014--metrics included 42,338 questions answered, 34 million YouTube views and 3.8 million visitors to the food quality FAQ page on efforts did in fact bear some fruit.

“We saw a 12 percent improvement about how Millennials felt about eating at McDonald’s,” said Jill Manata, VP global public affairs and CSR engagement at the golden arches chain. “What transparency meant was a step beyond ‘Come and get a Big Mac.’ It led to greater trust among customers.”

As part of those efforts, the fast food giant set goals around such “dirty label” ingredients as trans fats (specifically, removing them from its cooking oils; it failed), starting a campaign to answer every question on social media, and releasing videos from inside the processing plant about how McRibs are made, starring a former Myth Busters anchor.

“GMOs are a great example,” Manata said. “The main question was if our potatoes are GMO. We wanted to answer the question factually--no, we do not use GMO potatoes. But, our fries are cooked in oil from canola, corn and soy that is GMO.”

The new McDonald’s CEO is trying to reposition the ultimate value brand as a quality brand as well. Millennials--the group most likely to eat McDonald’s--are also the demographic most likely to demand transparent business practices around the food they eat.

Viral videos about slaughterhouse practices have similarly shaken the fortunes of the American beef industry. The malignment peaked perhaps with the 2011 Daily Show episode titled, “Death From a Bun,” about the health risks of hot dogs.

“People talk about how the McRib was an unnatural shape,” lamented Manata, “But I have yet to see a cow that is shaped like a hamburger.

Taken on its own, a 12 percent improved perception among Millennials, while impressive, could easily be imagined to rub off a few months after its transparency PR campaign ended. But if it’s part of larger efforts to reposition the golden arches to something approaching platinum level, then transparency could indeed be seen as the way forward, even among the biggest practitioners of pink slime, trans fats and an ocean’s worth of sodium.

In the natural foods business, transparency practices are an article of faith. When that is inbred into a company’s DNA, you will not be quite so flummoxed as McDonald’s might be when, after patting itself on the back for a successful transparency campaign, they start to hear about whether the pigs for the McRib are fed in feedlots, the environmental and community impact of such Big Ag practices, and other questions it thought it had answered--until consumers, again, moved the goal posts to a healthier food paradigm.

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