McDonald’s farmyard ads draw fire

January 6, 2012

McDonald’s faces accusations of “farm washing” as the world’s largest restaurant chain by revenues seeks to harness the growing local food movement and stem criticism about its food quality with a US advertising blitz featuring pastoral farmyard settings.

The company has faced withering criticism in recent years over the beef content in its burgers, the fat in its fries, its marketing to children and the way its suppliers treat their animals. In three ads launched this week, McDonald’s is showcasing a lettuce farmer, a potato farmer and a cattle rancher as part of an effort to change misconceptions about its food.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Danya Proud, a McDonald’s spokeswoman. “We’ve struggled for several years with the perception of our food. People don’t think we use real ingredients.”

The theatrical ads feature bucolic scenes of family farmers and grazing cows enjoying sunshine and roaming freely. But critics of McDonald’s have already hit out at the ad campaign, accusing the company of being disingenuous and falsely implying that the food is not heavily processed.
Andy Bellatti, a Seattle-based nutritionist, said McDonald’s fries were more “farm to lab” than farm to fork.

“This is means to distract from conversations they don’t want to have,” Mr Bellatti said. “It creates this romanticised pastoral idea that McDonald’s mass produced French fries are no different then going to a farmer’s market, buying a potato and frying it in a pan in your home.”

Corporate Accountability International, a watchdog group, said the McDonald’s ads were misleading and were another example of the company’s aggressive approach to advertising.

“The reality is that no corporation is more central to telling farmers to grow an inordinate amount of food that is bad for both people’s health and the environment,” said Sara Deon, a director at CAI.

Even Steve Foglesong, an Illinois cattle rancher featured in one of the McDonald’s ads, acknowledged that his beef is well travelled before it ends up at the restaurants.

“We don’t exactly back the truck up to McDonald’s,” Mr Foglesong said. “Products go to a processor and they in turn sell it to McDonald’s. When you slice and dice a steer, it can end up in half a dozen different countries.”

In spite of the criticism, some analysts commended the effort by McDonald’s. Sara Senatore, restaurant analyst at Bernstein Research, argues that the company is following a similar strategy that was successful in Europe after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, and that McDonald’s is working to respond to concerns about the safety of its supply chain.

In the US, fears over fast food safety rose two years ago when McDonald’s and other hamburger chains acknowledged using meat fillers that were soaked in ammonia to kill pathogens. Last November, McDonald’s said it would stop purchasing eggs from Sparboe Farms after the supplier was found violating sanitation and animal cruelty rules.

“McDonald’s probably doesn’t get enough credit for its supply chain safety, but the onus is on them to prove that they are better than most people give them credit for,” Ms Senatore said.

For its part, McDonald’s said it was responding to greater consciousness from customers about where food comes from and that it wanted to be more transparent.

“The misperception comes from people wondering how this can be real beef, lettuce and potatoes when you’re serving so much of it at a reasonable price,” Ms Proud said. “We’re telling the journey of where it begins with our food.”

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