A Lesson in Farmwashing from the Golden Arches

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farm·wash·ing (noun): A marketing technique used by some industrial food producers in which idyllic images of farming are deployed to create misleading messages about how their products are made.

Some call it farmwashing, others just call it BS, either way, McDonald’s recent approach to improve their image is cheapening the entire concept of farm to fork.

First came the television commercials.

In 2012, McDonalds released three commercials highlighting American farmers who are producing the raw ingredients (beef, lettuce and potatoes) for their menu.  Clearly trying to cash-in on increasing consumer awareness of the benefits of eating locally and naturally, the commercials undermine and offend educated consumers, activists, and most of all, the farmers.  The same farmers who are trying desperately to stay in business because of the dysfunctional corporate farm infrastructure that McDonald’s has helped create.

I don’t think McDonald’s is outright lying with these commercials.  They are merely highlighting the kinder, prettier parts of the story and ignoring the rest of the steps it takes to get McDonald’s food into their paper bags.  For instance, there is a good chance that after this rancher’s cattle reach a certain size, they are sent off to a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) that looks more like this:

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Or how about the story of the McDonald’s potato farmer?

McDonald’s conveniently leaves out the part where they add beef flavor and deep fry those potatoes in a combination of GMO laden and trans-fatty oils.  Where is that part of the “farm-to-table” story?

Trying to position McDonald’s as an advocate of local farming seems laughable, and I would think that most consumers aren’t buying it.

But, just in case, McDonald’s has also created commercials for one of our most vulnerable, and easily manipulated populations: children.

With an iconic clown like Ronald McDonald, it is no secret that McDonald’s has a long standing tradition of peddling their products to children.  Focusing on apples and milk, arguably two of the most unpopular products sold at McDonald’s, and convincing kids that McDonald’s is the place to go for a nutritious meal is downright shameful.

And, did you catch this scene?

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Where can you find carrots, a chicken leg, and bread sliced from a loaf on McDonald’s menu? That’s right. You can’t.  For adults, I would call this deceptive.  For children, it’s just dishonest.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, now McDonald’s is reaching out to Registered Dietitians to try and continue to solicit the idea that they sell “quality, fresh” products right from the farm.

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In this flyer, the company invites dietitians to a ‘field-to-restaurant’ tour which according to the accompanying email only includes one farm stop: a lettuce farm.  Other than that, dietitians and other guests will only have access to a panel of dairy, beef, and produce suppliers to answer their questions.  Could you imagine if McDonald’s actually gave folks access to a CAFO?  Or why not give consumers a lesson in the process of making a Chicken McNugget?  Farm-to-restaurant? More like, farm-to-factory-to-restaurant.

McDonald’s is undermining a legitimate and necessary revolution, where we focus less on speed and convenience,  and more on local sourcing, health, seasonality, and sustainability.   If the company was really interested in the movement, they would take the millions spent on this farmwashing campaign and use it to start making real changes in the way their food is produced. I’m not lovin’ it, McDonald’s.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Junk Food Industry

When I first decided to become a Registered Dietitian, I was very excited about the opportunity to join the team of nutrition experts that represent the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).  I assumed that the credential (and the professional organization behind it) would provide me with the skills and education necessary to help improve the nation’s food environment through public policy and research. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Instead, I find myself struggling to defend my credential, and wanting to distance myself from the very organization I was supposed to be depending on for guidance.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) is the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Comprised primarily of Registered Dietitians, the organization is supposed to help advance the profession through research, advocacy and education.

However, last January, Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit and blogger for Eat Drink Politics, unveiled a report disclosing important details about the relationships between the AND and food companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey’s. This report provided abundant evidence that partnerships with Big Food make it impossible for AND members to communicate clear and accurate nutrition messages.

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Americans are already bombarded with deceptive claims and misleading information regarding nutrition and health.  Most don’t realize that much of the advice they receive stems from the economic interests of food companies rather than actual nutrition science.   Big Food is not in business to protect or contribute to good health. These companies exist to make profits. Partnering with health organizations like the AND is just another means to put a health halo on products that are fundamentally unhealthful, and provides a false sense of trust to the public that the companies actually care about the health of their customers.

According to Simon’s report, the AND claims,

In its relations with corporate organizations, the Academy is mindful of the need to avoid a perception of conflict of interest and to act at all times in ways that will only enhance the credibility and professional recognition of the Academy and its members.

But, when food companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (known for their junk food products) sponsor the Academy’s conferences and contribute continuing education to Registered Dietitians, it is impossible for the RD credential not to lose integrity in the eyes of the public.  Furthermore, it is hard to believe that there is no bias in the information and research that is presented. You can’t expect an organization accepting funding from fast food companies to tell the public to eat less fast food. Instead, they use messages like, ‘all foods fit’ or ‘everything in moderation’, that continue to confuse consumers.

It is truly unfortunate that the reputation of a credential we have worked so hard for (and deeply value) has become tarnished thanks to some measly monetary contributions by Big Food.  Thankfully, I discovered an organization a few months ago comprised of over 4,000 Registered Dietitians, health professionals and conscious consumers that not only feel as I do, but are striving for change. Dietitians for Professional Integrity was created by several RD’s, working hard to convince the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to cut ties with food companies that contribute to our nation’s poor health. In fact, just a few days ago, the organization released a petition, which will be formally presented to the Academy at their next Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in October.

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Even if you are not a Registered Dietitian, please consider signing on to this petition. Nutrition professionals, the clients we serve, and the public deserve nutrition information and education free of bias and influence from junk food companies.