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McDonald's Latest Menu Atrocity

If there's a more pressing public-health issue in America than obesity among both children and adults, I'm not sure what that issue is. (First Lady Michelle Obama certainly shares this view.) And if there's a giant company better positioned than McDonald's to have an impact on that problem, I'm not sure who that company is.

So how is it that this giant, highly influential organization has managed to turn a food product as wholesome and nutritious as oatmeal in to a culinary weapon of mass destruction? What are the leaders of this company thinking? Why are they missing such an obvious opportunity to help improve a difficult situation rather than to make matters worse?

Those are the questions that leapt to mind as I read a post last week by Mark Bittman, who has spent 13 years writing about food for the New York Times. Bittman noticed that McDonald's, which has been adding salads, fruits and other options to its artery-clogging menu, now sells oatmeal as part of its "selection of balance choices." The trouble is, as Bittman explains, "the company is doing everything it can to turn oatmeal into yet another bad choice."

How so? The company automatically adds cream ("which contains seven ingredients, two of them actually dairy," Bittman drily notes) to the oatmeal. It also adds brown sugar unless customers request otherwise. The (pretty) good news is that it also adds raisins, cranberries, and apples. All told, according to Bittman, a McDonald's "bowl full of wholesome" includes "oats, sugar, sweetened dried fruit, cream, and 11 weird ingredients you would never keep in the kitchen."

The end result is a product-remember, this is oatmeal-"with more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald's cheeseburger."

It makes me want to gag-and then to scream! How can an organization as big, successful, and marketing-savvy as McDonald's bungle such an easy opportunity to make a positive contributions to society? And if McDonald's misses such an obvious chance to get something right, is there hope for other companies?

Those of us who are students of business innovation, and who also understand that society itself has so many issues in desperate need of new solutions, often hope that the biggest companies in the world can help to tackle some of the biggest problems in the world. Wal-Mart, at least if you believe what you read, has become much more conscious of its environmental impact and potential contributions to sustainability. IBM, with real justification, loves to communicate its contributions to a "smarter planet" and its capacity to help make traffic, energy production, and urban planning more effective.

I haven't lost my appetite for big companies trying to make a contribution that goes beyond the bottom line. But McDonald's has certainly botched the recipe for social innovation this time around.

What do you think? Are you seeing companies getting it mostly right--or wrong?

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