Fast food companies and missed leadership chances

At least four ears ago, I sat in a room in Brussels with some other ‘stakeholders’ and talked to a major fast food company about obesity, customers, ethics and marketing.

Towards the end of the discussion, in which sat some very senior executives, we made the suggestion: “put calorie content on your menus”.

The rationale was twofold: One, transparency. People have a right to know what they are eating.

Two, there’s always a lot of mis-information out there about what is in food, and how many calories there are say, in a hamburger vs. a chicken ‘nugget’. So let us know.

Just give people the information, we said. There are in your premises anyway. They are hungry. They know it’s not gourmet food. What do you have to lose? Except an opportunity to lead and experiment.

The company executives look bemused by our suggestion. “Nutritional information is on the other side of the piece of paper on the tray that you put your food on”, they said.

They didn’t take up our advice.

Years later, fast food is doing quite well in the recession, but the obesity headlines are still coming.

And now this headline, all over the UK media: “Menus to display calorie counts”. This is a voluntary initiative set up by a Government agency.

Finally its happening. More information on what we eat. Better information.

It’s a shame that this didn’t come from a company taking the lead, and others copying.

A big company could have kicked it off themselves and started a really serious debate, by going it alone, or working with others. Where were the industry associations here? Nowhere of course, as usual.

This voluntary plan came from the Food Standards Agency, who found that, unsurprisingly, 85% of consumers are “in favour of catering outlets displaying nutritional data”. No, really?

This is obvious. Yet no fast food company seemed prepared to lead on this. A lost chance to use brand, resources and reach to highlight an important issue, and build trust.

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