Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Further To The Mac Attack

A commentator raised the point that Macca's menu has altered. He also suggested my antiMac rant was 'a bit 1990s', so I figure he's earned a little gentle return fire. But I also figure that the fellow in question is quite a clever chap, and if the McMenu changes have shifted his opinion, then it's possibly worthwhile raising a few points for all to consider.

I'm aware of the changes to Mickey's menu. I'm also aware of the degree to which they were essentially cosmetic, at least initially. For example: when they started bringing those 'healthy salads' on board, they served 'em up with more fat than their regular burgers carried. (It was in the dressing, and the mayonnaise.) Oh - and the Heart Foundation Tick is a bit of a sad joke these days, I'm afraid. There was some argy-bargy over their standards a few years ago, and to cut a long story short - it's a whole lot easier to get a HFT than it used to be, I have been told. The excuse, I believe, was that they were hoping to motivate people to take small steps, at the very least. The original HFT standards were just 'too stringent', and apparently people weren't motivated to make healthy choices as a result. Or something. Either way - Mickey Dee makes a lot of noise about scoring its HFT. But they don't talk very much about the health downside of their other menu items, do they?

In any case, for me the underlying problem is the approach of the chains to their customers and to food in general. Micky Dee and the Colonel and their ilk aren't actually about feeding you. They're about channeling and herding you into a branded corporate 'experience' that (they hope) you will wish to repeat endlessly. It's a very hard sell they've got going, and behind the very, very hard sell, behind all the advertising, behind all the toys and the movie tie-ins and the incredible amount of branding aimed at children, the actual "food" isn't particularly good. Or cheap.

It's the taking-aim-at-children that pisses me off, and it's that aspect which moved both Natalie and I -- and presumably Birmo -- to 'cheat' and misdirect our kids until they were old enough to make their own decisions. It's one thing for an adult to talk up the 'healthy menu items' and decide to have a 'salad and a bottle of water'. It's entirely another for a kid to overlook all the chips and the ice creams and the milkshakes and the toys and the colourful packaging and the commemorative movie-character plastic cups, etc.

I can't buy time on every kid's TV programme to advertise the quality of home cooking. I can't get the licensing rights to must-have plastic toys that match all the latest kids movies. I can't raise iconic signs that stick up higher than 'most anything else for kilometres around. I can't muster tens of thousands of franchise outlets in hundreds of countries around the world. I can't afford to sponsor major sporting events. And most importantly, there is no way I can hide all these things from my children. Even in rural Tas, in a township that has no clown, no colonel, no dancing goddam tacos, no Pizza the Hutt -- even in a place like this, you don't escape the branding, the advertising, the toys, and the massive corporate push.

They don't permit the advertising of tobacco to children. They don't permit the advertising of alcohol to children. This is because, as we all agree, most children are not particularly good at critical thinking. They don't have the necessary experience to make complex, value-weighted judgements about issues which (for example) strongly affect their long-term health.

Current research suggests that the 'classic menu' stuff from the clown and the colonel is actually very, very bad for you indeed. Some of the papers coming liken the severity of long-term effects of heavy McEating to the damage done by heavy smoking and drinking. And even if you don't believe the research, take a look around you. There's a full-on epidemic of obesity out there, folks.

Think back to when you were a kid in school. How many 'fat kids' did you see? My memory is clear and sharp. I can remember the 'fat girl' in my grade 1 class. I also remember the 'fat girl' in my grade 3 class. Try as I may, I don't recall a single significantly overweight boy in any of my classes in the little country schools I attended.

In my first high school - Cairns High, 1200 kids - my year eight class had one boy who was overweight by the standards of the day. (You wouldn't look twice at him now.) I can remember seeing a handful of other kids who were overweight. Not many, though. They stood out. People noticed them.

My second high school was quite small - maybe eighty kids. But I remember the one overweight boy quite clearly, and the two girls who were heavier than they ought to have been. (One of the girls was aboriginal, which definitely has bearing on the issue. Obesity among the aboriginal population in Australia is an even bigger problem than in the white population.)

I went to school between 1972 and 1981, in the Cairns area. There was one KFC outlet, and no clownage at all.

Do I blame the clown and the colonel for modern lardy-arsedness? Hell, no - at least, not entirely. There are plenty of other dietary disasters and lifestyle changes that have come down the line since my school days. But there's no denying there are an awful lot of fat kids around now. And no matter what you may wish to say about the new menu items at Mickey Dee -- as far as I can tell, they're essentially 'gateway drugs', or 'enablers', designed to quell parental anxieties.

Because how many parents are going to order only the 'healthy' salad stuff, and tell the kids they can't have just a small bag of those hyper-advertised fries as a treat? (Go ahead. Close your eyes. How many different TV images can you recall, extolling the virtues of those 'fries'? Pervasive, aren't they?) And how many kids aren't going to ask for maybe just a soft drink, or even just a little ice-cream after their nice, 'healthy' salad?

"A bit 1990s"? I don't think so. The epidemic of morbidly fat, unhealthy, inactive kids looks very much like a 'today, right now' problem to me.

I have absolutely no guilt, no shame, and no regrets about keeping my kids away from the clown and his pusher buddies. And I'm not in any way impressed by 'fig-leaf' tactics involving salad items, Heart Foundation Ticks, or press releases extolling the healthy qualities of the new-look menus. Behind the lip-service to health, it's business as usual, and for those corporations, 'business as usual' means acquiring my children's reflexive eating habits as early as possible.

In fact, if you want to talk "1990s", I think you need look no further than the corporate culture of the Colonel and the Clown. After all, we're supposed to be savvier consumers these days. We're not supposed to be brand-loyal any more (except maybe for Apple addicts. They're weird.) The era of the 'captive audience' is supposedly over. Theoretically, modern corporations survive by responding to the needs of their market -- not by dictating to that market, and drowning any possible alternatives in an ocean of advertising money and media tie-ins.

Or maybe it's even older than 1990s, eh? St Francis Xavier and the Jesuits: "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." Seems to me the Colonel and the Clown are thoroughly aware of that adage, and judging by the amount of money they spend targeting small children, they're acting on it. And by the decreasing number of children who qualify as 'small', they're having a lot more success than they deserve.

There's a lot more to this argument than I've covered. The more you dig, the more complicated and nasty the whole thing becomes. You get into issues of factory farming, of massive antibiotic usage to keep animals free of infection under crowded, unhygienic conditions. You find questions about land clearing, and about corporate farming practices in general. One example: here, where I live, a friend of mine leased one of his paddocks to a grower who was producing potatoes for McChips. The grower had to use a very, very specific variety of potato -- the only one the corporation will use. And further, only potatoes of a very specific size range were acceptable: anything too large or too small was simply left abandoned in the field.

As a result, when the season was done, my friend went out into his field and collected over a tonne of potatoes which had been left, deemed unacceptable. Initially, my friend thought this was quite the windfall. And it really does seem like a lot of wasted food, doesn't it?

It wasn't, though. We tried cooking those potatoes. They were the most extraordinarily tasteless things I've ever tried to eat. Didn't matter what you did to 'em -- it tasted like you were eating plain flour. Just starch. In the end, he composted most of 'em. (As I understand it, the 'fries' get flavouring added during the processing. McD is very, very careful to ensure that their 'fries' taste exactly the same the world over, after all.)

Still, tasteless or not... there were an awful lot of those potatoes left lying in that field because they don't meet cosmetic standards. That's a considerable investment in energy, in arable land, in fertiliser and manpower. Multiply that one little field by all the tens of thousands of fields all over the world that are needed to supply the Clown and the Colonel. And then glance across at all the places in the world where there's not enough to eat.

This has been a long post, triggered by a short comment. I accept the original statement wasn't intended in any hostile sense, and in writing this, my intent isn't to target a light-hearted, offhand remark from one person. But as I said: the person in question is no fool, and in his opinion, the 'new menu' represents a noteworthy improvement. To me, that suggests it's worth raising a few of the deeper issues. And at the very least, hopefully it explains my perspective as a parent just a little more clearly.


  1. I've come to learn over time to appreciate a well cooked meal. After a few too many years eating take out, when I go and see what Harrys Diner have to offer I hope to heaven that the owner has cooked up his awesome Beef Stroganoff. Not that I don't appreciate Mardi's Chicken Carbonara, or the Harrys Hotdogs that she makes, or even just the BLT sandwiches she whips up when I ask for it.

    But then I go to Kel and Tash's of a thursday, and boy do I get a good feed. The other week she made a really nice Pork Roast, with roast potatoes, and etc etc etc. I devoured the rest, and when Tash said "Do you want the rest of my pork?" I stole the plate from her and let it slide down my throat to digest away.

    And now when i go to mums place of a fortnight, she'll ask what I want for dinner and the reply will be something along the likes of Corned Beef with white sauce, or Stuffed Potatoes with all the accessories.

    Mickey Dee's is not a way to live. I get sick after a cheeseburger. Although if i'm hungover, I'd mung down about 2 or 3, all with added bacon and sweet+sour dipping sauce. Seriously, the S+S has a nice tang.

  2. Although I'm not averse to the occasional "McChucks" as we called it growing up, I have to agree with Flinthart here.

    Regards the "classic" menu, I will NEVER forget what one of my instructors at William Angliss College told me (way back in the dark ages). At that time, (tho' vehemently denied by the corporate clown), the Maccas buns were so loaded with sugar that they were actually addictive. I believe they have changed their bread recipe in the last decade, making a mockery of the outrage they displayed when word got out.

    As far as their new menu goes... I'll admit to buying a couple of their salads when it was all new and shiny, and given that I'm not a real fan of dressings, they probably weren't too bad for me, but oh the COST! Ever noticed that the healthy options are always dearer than the others? Figured I was nuts to pay a motza for an expensive disposable bowl, as the salad could be made at home at less than a quarter of the price if I was prepared to invest about 30 seconds washing a dish.

    And I think that's MY biggest problem with the whole shebang. It is NOTICEABLY more expensive to purchase "convenient" healthy food than "convenient" rubbish. Case in point: If I go to my local bakery to buy lunch, because I'm lazy or not feeling well, or in a rush, it is cheaper for me to buy a pie and a sausage roll (yes both!) than to buy a fresh chicken/ham and salad roll. Or if you want to buy "healthy" milk or "heart smart" butter, you pay twice as much. It is a perfect example of why so many kids with obesity problems are those from lower income households. It's just CHEAPER to feed kids rubbish, if you don't have the experience/smarts to know how to shop for fresh food, if you don't believe you can cook, or you're lazy and more focussed on the pokies than the kids, or you're so busy working and trying to raise kids that by the end of the day you don't have the energy to put a meal on a plate that didn't come out of a cardboard box. It's an easy trap to fall into.

    And sadly it's not going to get any better. The Brat is one of very few of his generation who knows how to cook. My best friend is adamant that when our boys are ready to move out of home, they should live together, because at least she knows her young man won't starve, and in fact will probably eat better than he ever did at home. (I'll never forget being at a State basketball tournament, and hearing one of the Mums on the phone, trying to teach her son to cook scrambled eggs in the microwave).

    The Brat eats takeaway mainly when he is feeling too lazy/tired to cook, but after a couple of plastic burger nights, he'd rather open a tin of tuna and make a cheap and simple mornay, or scramble a couple of eggs, than keep eating rubbish. Sometimes he even starts to feel cr*p enough to start craving vegetables. WIN!

  3. Admitttedly, this usually happens when I'm gadding about enjoying myself in Melbourne, but I don't know why my Mum has such a problem with me going away, she sees more of her grandson at those times than she does the rest of the year combined. The Brat knows that if he wants healthy and is still feeling too tired/lazy to cook, then Nanna will provide lol!

  4. And (sorry to hijack your blog Flinthart), I have to just say I cracked up laughing when I saw McD's offering kids juice boxes and apples as an alternative to softdrink and fries. AS IF!

  5. Wow, I feel so guilty reading this!

    While I'm by no means a regular at McDonald's (although I guess that depends on your definition of regular - I probably have it once every 2 months on average), I don't bother with anything "healthy" when I'm there. No, I get my cheeseburger, I load my fries onto it, and I enjoy it. Yep, it's a short-lived enjoyment, but a small cheeseburger meal is all I ever have, so I don't get too sick. ;)

    As you and everyone else has said, the "healthy" stuff is about looking like it's doing something.

    My parents were very good and made sure we always ate vegetables and good home-cooked meals. However, they'd still "treat" us to McDonald's on occasions - particularly travelling overseas where you could always guarantee a clean toilet if nothing else.

    However, I have always craved sweet and junky foods - while I enjoy "real" food, I'm not a very good cook and a bit uncertain in the kitchen with a limited range. I do the best I can, but I admit to turning to KFC snackboxes far more than I should (although anything more than that at the Colonel makes me sick). I also never seem to have time...

    ...but then these are all excuses and explain why I'm about 10 kilograms heavier than I probably should be.


  6. GC: I don't really have a problem at all with the 'occasional' McTreat, though I've walked away from that one quite a while ago myself. But - it's just too damned easy, really, isn't it? And that's how Younger Son got his dose. Harried mum bringing home a carload of kids after orchestra practice. 1730 at night, already dark here in Taz, and a 60km drive over winding country roads between four ten-and-under kids and their potential dinner.

    She could have stuck around in town long enough to use the local food court, sure. But that would have kept her there at least another half hour. She'd have got home at 1900 at the earliest. That half-hour is valuable to a mum with a family, so she took the quick option.

    And that's how it starts, with kids.

    Adults make their own choices, 'healthy menu' and all. But first, they have to realise they ARE making a choice - and that bit of training starts when they are very young. At least, it does in this house!

  7. And as a new Dad, I can really appreciate the downward spiral. My wife and I found that we were speding more and more time going out and getting HJ (BK in the rest of the country) or the Colonel or MickeyD when we were both too tired to cook after a night of sleeplessness and a day of either dealing with The Boy or working 8 hours. Its an easy and quick option and that's the point. Convenient and filling.

    Now we are making more of an effort seeing as The Boy is now old enough to eat our food and I appreciate the difference but old habits are hard to break. We are programmed to eat a high-calorie diet to get us through the lean times of winter and these big companies work on that addiction. But seeing as how we no longer have lean winters in our society of plenty, we just get fatter and fatter as we pile in those calories. I still crave sugar and starch and its very, very hard to ignore your body's cries for them. Its a hard road but one I plan on walking for the benefit of my Boy.

    Thanks for voicing how I feel, Flintheart.

  8. Kelvin: stay in contact. I've got a huuuuge list of recipes and techniques for making incredibly tasty food that's also healthy enough to keep my wife the doctor happy. And as far as possible, they're simple and easy things to do.

    That's the place where the Colonel and the Clown score: ease and convenience. If you can produce tasty, healthy food in short order without much effort, the Colonel and the Clown start looking pretty shabby.

    D'you have an email address?

  9. Ha Haaaaa! I knew that would totally get you going! :)

    I've been to busy to reply properly and there is something I need to check first.

  10. My other three kids (who live with their Mum a great many kms away) eat too much shit food, don't exercise enough, and as a result are a bit plump to fat (which shits me to tears). Visiting with them once a few years back, my wife and I were talking with them about healthier eating etc., and they were telling us 'Oh but Maccas has healthier stuff on the menu these days'...my wife responded with 'That's all well and good, but do YOU guys order the salads or just go for the burgers?' They conceded that they did indeed go for the burgers. The healthy stuff isn't any good if you don't eat it!

    Our 'fast food' here is fish and chips from this great fish shop across the road on a Friday night (Catholic Fish Friday!). Wifey and I used to get these epicly awesome burgers from a shop up the road on rare occasions...but the bloody shop shut so that's the end of that. If it comes to hamburgers, I'll take one from a good, small, family run place over a corporate entity any day.

  11. Hey, Dirk, I could use some of those recipes too! While we don't generally do convenience food, our version of quick has gotten stuck in a roasted chicken with roasted root veggies and steamed greens rut. It's good and one of the few things I can count on the Spawn eating but...even good free-range chicken gets old after a while. On the plus side, the Spawn has started wanting to help chop the veggies. As she is only three, this rather scary, actually. Never write things whilst attempting to "do" a puppet.

  12. Dirk, I agree with most of what you say although I was surprised by the Heart Foundation comment, I didn't know that. Sigh, another bastion thwarted.

    As a parent of 3 kids, we occasionally visited Macs as a treat, it didn't do any harm and the pester power thing didn't bother us, we were good parents and never gave into such nonsense. I think the point here is good parenting. We all have different theories and stratagems when approaching these things . I took the approach of most things in moderation with discipline rather than your 'hide then from it' approach. both methods work I suppose but I'd be worried about a 'rebound/rebellion' thing when they are teenagers with yours. perhaps living where you do will help there :)

    One thing I do want to address though is your apparent cynical response to corporation attempts at change. These changes are brought about by customer satisfaction surveys which most corporations take very seriously. Because it doesn't matter how arrogant or large you are, you will go out of business with no customers. Good Customer satisfaction means good customer loyalty which, in this capitalist world, means you can charge more. Apple are the world leaders here.

    As you know I work for an Australian corporation that is suffering from an apparent image problem at the moment (although many of the complaints written on blogs like JBs are instigated by the opposition - true!) My company takes this VERY seriously. many people think we are so arrogant that customers don't matter. 'urrrgnt' Wrong! We conduct a special (all the bells and whistles)customer survey every month and the findings are reduced to a figure which is currently 6.4 (i don't know the unit) If we can get that figure to 6.7 in 70 days (I cant remember the exact date) every employee will get $1000. that's a hit on the company of nearly 30 million. that's how serious they are. Unfortunately the needle went backwards last month so we are reviewing things once more. My point is that ALL major corporations include MacDonald's and Woolworth's conduct these types of surveys and try to keep customers by improving customers satisfaction.

    Sorry if this is a bit disjointed but I have a baby migraine this morning

  13. Flinty - any recipie you send to Kelvin, send to me. I'm helping raise kids now too :)

  14. Have a read of Flintys post on Mother Foccacia http://motherfoccacia.blogspot.com/2009/05/baby-food.html about baby food too, i sent to all my mates with young kids and it was thoughtfully picked over.

    I truly doubt whether any large modern corporation truly puts their customers satisfaction and wellbeing before profits, i just don't believe its in our culture anymore.

    I made a pledge to go off HJ for a year, it was my last resort food at work when i'd forgotten lunch, i never really enjoyed it and had kicked the rest of them a long time before. Still was a real effort to do that year though, habits are hard to break and easy to form and i was nowhere near a regular patron.

  15. Thanks for the offer. I do have an addy. It is: juffowupATgmailDOTcom

    Any and all recipes appreciated. Ta!

  16. Customer satisfaction MEANS profits. No questions. But in the case of places like McDee, they're having a bet both ways. "Healthy menu" gives 'em something to point at to show they're addressing parental concerns. "Heavily advertised McMeals with media tie-ins and toys" continue to target the littlies.

    I regret you feel I'm being cynical here. I'm not. I'm looking at exactly what is in front of me. I understand that the Clown has a need to address customer satisfaction, sure. But the Clown's core business is those burgers and fries they advertise so heavily. And only an incredibly stupid corporation would create a parallel line of products WITHOUT doing their best to ensure that their core business was still solidly supported.

    Whatever else the Clown's minions may be, they're not stupid. And so, quite naturally, they continue to work very hard at drawing new clientele to their core business of fast burgers and fries.

    I don't blame them any more than I blame a dog for killing a rabbit. It's the nature of corporations to pursue profit. But since my kids are in line to be the rabbits to this particular dog, I'm sure you'll excuse me if I take steps to keep them safe -- and if I don't accept that the dog in question is a perfectly harmless vegetarian.