McDonald's appeals to growing appetite for information (and fries)

  • Article by: LESLIE PATTON , B loomberg News
  • Updated: April 9, 2012 - 8:43 PM

McDonald’s, which serves 9 million pounds of fries worldwide each day, is finding it necessary to provide consumers with more and more information.

Photo: Richard Vogel, Associated Press

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Biting into a McDonald's French fry should be like "walking on freshly fallen snow."

Barbara Booth, the company's director of sensory science, was presiding over the fast-food giant's semi-annual French Fry Evaluation -- a contest among McCain Foods Ltd., ConAgra Foods Inc.'s Lamb Weston and J.R. Simplot Co. to cook perfect versions of McDonald's fries.

"Close your eyes," Booth told the three executives and 11 supplier representatives as they sniffed, sampled and spit fries. "If you can't tell what you're eating in three seconds, there's a problem."

As chains such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Smashburger attract diners looking for a better burger, McDonald's is more than ever focused on the quality of its food. And in an age of social media and hyper-informed consumers, it is being forced to open up about the provenance of its beef, potatoes and more.

In January, McDonald's began featuring online homages to its suppliers. In one "Supplier Story" video, Frank Martinez, who farms about 1,000 acres of potatoes in Warden, Wash., brushes the dirt from a spud, slices it and declares: "Good potato!"

While sales growth at McDonald's stores open at least 13 months has exceeded 3 percent for two years, the company is "mindful American consumers are wanting more education than ever before," said analyst Mark Kalinowski.

Providing more information about the McDonald's menu is also a way to change the conversation, according to Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group. Locally sourced potatoes don't change the fact that a large order of McDonald's fries delivers 25 grams of fat.

Americans "have more questions about where their food comes from -- whether they're purchasing it from McDonald's or whether they're purchasing it from a grocery store," said Heather Oldani, a McDonald's spokeswoman. "We've just started to scratch the surface with the 'Meet Our Suppliers' campaign."

Earlier this year, the Big Mac seller said it will require its pork suppliers to phase out the gestation pens that animal-rights groups have long deemed cruel. The move follows that of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which more than a decade ago began requiring its suppliers to raise pigs outside or in large cages and use antibiotic-free and vegetarian food.

While McDonald's took to Twitter about two years ago to get feedback on its menu and stores, it's now focusing the online conversations on suppliers and food origin, said Rick Wion, the social media chief.

"We're continually looking at ways we can promote our suppliers and talk about what goes into our supply chain," he said. "We get questions about it all the time."

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