Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Mcdonald's Pursuit of Perfect Fries Risks Exposing Flaws

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Mcdonald's Pursuit of Perfect Fries Risks Exposing Flaws

Article excerpt

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 "World Famous Fries."

"Close your eyes," Ms. Booth told the three executives and 11 supplier representatives as they sniffed, sampled and spit fries in a ritual akin to tasting a Napa Valley Pinot. "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 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 24/7 social media and hyper-informed consumers, the world's largest burger chain 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 Mark Kalinowski, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott in New York. "They want to make sure that they are not losing business to competitors that do a better job at communicating this type of message."

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.

McDonald's tries "to come across as warm and fuzzy," Ms. Jacobson said. "They don't show the frying of the potatoes" which "end up far higher in calories than they start out at."

Last year, McDonald's store owners received an emailed call to arms from the chain's U.S. president, Jan Fields. The industry has been "negatively impacted" by "food and product safety concerns," Ms. Fields wrote. "Our ultimate success will require a fundamental shift in how we approach Brand Trust and how we incorporate these efforts in to everything we do."

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."

McDonald's is making other efforts to come clean about its food. …

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