Nutrition Critics Get No Apology from McDonald’s CEO at Annual Meeting

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Corporate mea culpas seem to be all the rage these days. But not at McDonald’s. And not by CEO Don Thompson—or Ronald McDonald, for that matter.

Presiding for the first time over an annual meeting of McDonald’s, Thompson spent a good deal of the time not discussing McDonald’s sluggish growth or intensifying menu shuffling but simply defending the chain against charges that it’s a bad corporate citizen because it sells and markets its food to kids.

Several speakers associated with Corporate Accountability International, a nonprofit corporate watchdog, grilled Thompson about the topic, accusing McDonald’s of targeting kids, targeting children of color, undermining children’s health and of contributing greatly to the country’s obesity problem.[more]

Thompson reminded his inquisitors of the various things that McDonald’s has done over the last few years, before his tenure and under it, to address this issue, including modifying its Happy Meal in 2011 to include apple slices and low-fat milk, launching Happy Meal ads last year that focused on nutrition, recently introducing a version of the Egg McMuffin made with egg whites only, and selling skewers of kiwis and pineapples in some non-US markets.

But he also turned to rhetoric and his personal point of view, as well as rationality, in addressing the group that also, earlier, had tried to get McDonald’s to retire the Ronald McDonald clown mascot. “Ronald is not a bad guy,” Thompson insisted, according to the Wall Street Journal account of the meeting. “He’s about fun. He’s a clown. I’d urge you all to let your kids have fun, too.”

And after a CAI representative harped on the issue of McDonald’s “aggressive marketing” to communities of color, featuring black athletes such as LeBron James and Venus Williams, Thompson responded that McDonald’s “[is] not the brand that you describe.” And then Thompson, an African-American, said the chain will not try to “target people of color with subersive tactics,” beginning his response by saying that the issue hits close to home, then adding, “I wonder why.”

Thompson also noted that he “grew up in the neighborhood,” as a native Chicagoan who is from Cabrini Green, an infamous low-income housing project.

None of that and more parrying by Thompson was enough to silence his, or Ronald’s, critics, of course. But it was pretty clear that McDonald’s thinks it’s doing plenty not only to sell burgers but to give its customers the healthful menu options they want.

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