McDonald's Happy Meals Kristian Dowling/Getty Images
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 29: Children eat a new Happy Meal at the McDonald's restaurant in Collingwood on August 29, 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. The new Happy Meal is a low fat alternative to the fast food chain's traditional Happy Meal. Childhood obesity is a major health issue in Australia and has tripled in the last 20 years with one in six Australian children classed as obese. (Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images)

McDonald’s is taking the “happy” out of Happy Meals

McDonald’s is a major purchaser of beef, and as a result, can influence regulations and policies on topics such as nutrition and sustainability. With new changes to the menu, this rancher is questioning the fast food chain’s recent activity.

We all know McDonald’s is a major beef customer. The global retailer sells 75 hamburgers every second, and in the United States, we consume 1 billion pounds of McDonald’s beef annually (that’s 5.5 million head of cattle), according to The Fiscal Times.

In recent years, McDonald’s has become heavily involved in discussions on sustainability and was a founding member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) in 2011, which also includes 75 industry voices from groups such as Certified Angus Beef, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Cargill, JBS, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the beef checkoff, just to name a few.

In its most recent Beef Sustainability Report, McDonald’s says, “When you eat one of our world-famous burgers, you’re joining a movement toward a more sustainable future.”

While it’s great to see producer groups having an active seat at the table for these sustainability discussions, it’s frustrating to know that there is a perceived “problem” with cattlemen’s ability to manage natural resources. To give you an idea of what the GRSB is up to, in the U.S. there’s currently a case study that is looking at adaptive multi-paddock grazing and its ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere and further store it in the soil. I’m confused by this because isn’t rotational grazing already a largely accepted and widely practiced grass management technique for beef producers?

READ: McDonald's launches McVegan burger

The efforts of the GRSB, however well intentioned, have drawn much criticism in recent months because, to some, its very premise suggests that beef production is not sustainable.

For example, in an editorial from 2016, Colorado rancher Elisabeth Erickson-Noe raises an eyebrow to GRSB’s activities. She wrote, “The names of industry organizations involved in these roundtables are used as endorsements to further the WWF's agenda. Through participation, organizations suggest an acceptance of the opinion that current beef production is not sustainable in some way. An opinion with which many multi-generational ranchers disagree.

“The sheer coexistence of nature and ranching for centuries disproves that beef is a threat to biodiversity. To the contrary, ever-improving, thriving ranches indicate that cattle are healthy contributors to the biodiversity of the environment in which they live. Despite environmental propaganda, and in the face of demeaning rhetoric questioning their intelligence, ranchers as a whole continue to be most excellent stewards of the land on which their livelihoods depend.”

While I understand that if we aren’t at the table, we’ll be on the menu and that reality necessitates the industry’s need to be part of policy discussions as they relate to sustainability and environmental management, the fact is that we produce more beef in the U.S. today while using fewer natural resources than ever before. So do we really have a “sustainability” problem, or is it just a buzz word stolen by activists to regulate producers out of business and sell an ideology that appeases consumers and earns retailers a premium?

I’ll let you be the judge on that one.

For myself and my busy family, we often frequent McDonald’s when we’re out and about. Our typical order includes double cheeseburgers (hold the buns), and with McPick 2 for $5 options available at our local store, we can cheaply get four burgers for our family of four for just $10. We’ll round out the meal for the kids with apple slices and milk, and the combination doesn’t make me feel guilty as a mom feeding my kids on the go.

READ: McDonald's & Walmart demand sustainable beef -- what does that really mean?

The price and menu options are sure hard to beat, yet, if I truly want to vote with my dollars, I’m going to pick Wendy’s or Culver’s every time, solely for their support of modern agriculture as it exists today. These retailers love and appreciate farmers and ranchers, and they believe in our ability to care for the environment and the welfare of our animals while producing safe and wholesome products for their consumers. What’s not to love about that?

Looking at McDonald’s most recent move has me scratching my head a little bit more and questioning our visits to the popular fast food chain.

Last week, McDonald’s announced changes to its Happy Meals. According to CNN Money, “By 2022, cheeseburgers won't be part of the menu for the kids' meals, although parents can still ask for them. The main choices will be hamburgers and four- and six-piece Chicken McNuggets. And the French fry sizes will be smaller. Bottled water will be added to Happy Meals later this year, and chocolate milk will come with less sugar. McDonald's also pledged to serve more fruits, vegetables and grains.”

READ: McDonald’s is taking cheeseburgers out of the Happy Meal

By June, all U.S. Happy Meals will run under 600 calories, cutting calories by 20%, with at least half the stores around the world meeting that target by 2022. The American Heart Association is praising the move, calling it an “important step in the right direction.” CNN Money says that a whopping 40% of kids eat fast food every day, and roughly 15% of all McDonald’s customers order Happy Meals.

"Kids do crave McDonald's, but parents might not always feel good about bringing them there," said Ernest Baskin, Saint Joseph’s University professor of food marketing. "By positioning their meals as healthier, McDonald's is likely attempting to make the decision easier for the parents.”

While the changes might make parents “feel better” about ordering Happy Meals for their children, I find it hard to believe that ditching the cheese on the burger and serving more vegetables, fruits and grains is the solution to the nation’s obesity crisis. Sure, take some of the sugar out of the chocolate milk; that I can get behind. But placing all the blame on meat and dairy seems like an easy cop-out based on misinformation, biased information and 40 years of poor nutritional science.

READ: Mandate is clear: Flawed dietary guidelines process must be reformed

As consumers and beef producers, we need to push for reform of our nation’s deeply flawed current dietary guidelines. We need policy that is evidence-based, so companies like McDonald’s don’t continue to blindly follow low-fat standards that have been pushed for decades with the only benefit being thicker waistlines, more diabetes, increased risks for heart attacks and more.

If we can accomplish this task, then animal fats and proteins will no longer be demonized; consumers will be able to enjoy these products with confidence and without guilt; and I’m certain America’s health issues will be greatly reduced as a result.

And the next time I’m in town and need a meal on the go, I might think twice about which drive-thru window I choose. Not all fast food chains are created equal, and as beef producer, that’s something we may want to ruminate on a bit.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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