Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 12 News List

McDonald's gets fruity

Long the biggest single buyer of beef in the US, the fast food giant's new interest in changing its image by providing healthier food may soon turn it into a major player in the produce market too

By Melanie Warner  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Workers sort through sliced apples along the apple processing line at the Missa Bay food processing company facility near Swedesford, New Jersey, last week. The slices will be bagged and sent to McDonald's restaurants. Apple slices, called Apple Dippers, are one way that McDonald's is trying to offer healthier food to its customers and to answer the many critics who contend that almost everything else on its menu is of poor nutritional quality.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Each day, 50,000 shiny, fire-engine-red Gala apples work their way through a sprawling factory in Swedesboro, New Jersey. Inside, 26 machines wash them, core them, peel them, seed them, slice them and chill them. At the end of the line they are dunked in a solution of calcium ascorbate and then deposited into little green bags featuring a jogging Ronald McDonald.

From there, the bags make their way in refrigerated trucks to refrigerated containers in cavernous distribution centers, and then to thousands of McDonald's restaurants up and down the Eastern Seaboard. No more than 14 days after leaving the plant, the fruit will take the place of French fries in some child's Happy Meal.

The apple slices, called Apple Dippers, are one way that McDonald's is trying to offer healthier food to its customers -- and to answer the many critics who contend that almost everything else on its menu is of poor nutritional quality. McDonald's has also introduced "premium" California Cobb, Bacon Ranch and Caesar salads, a lineup that will soon be joined by a salad of grapes, walnuts -- and, of course, apples.

It remains to be seen whether these new offerings will assuage the concerns of public health officials and other critics of McDonald's highly processed fat- and calorie-laden sandwiches, drinks and fries. So far, they have not -- at least not entirely. But this much is already clear: Just as its enormous buying power and its staple burger-and-fries meals have made McDonald's the largest single buyer of beef and potatoes in the country, its new focus on fresh fruits and vegetables is making the company a major player in the US$80 billion American produce industry.

Influence

The potential impact goes beyond dollars and cents. Some people believe that McDonald's could influence not only the volume, variety and prices of fruit and produce in the nation, but also how they are grown.

The company now buys more fresh apples than any other restaurant or food service operation, by far. This year, it expects to buy 54 million pounds of fresh apples -- about 135 million individual pieces of fruit. That is up from zero apples just two years ago. (This does not include fruit used to make juice and pies, which use a different quality of apple.)

And it is not just apples: McDonald's is also among the top five food-service buyers of grape tomatoes and spring mix lettuce -- a combination of greens like arugula, radicchio and frisee. The boom has been so big and so fast that growers of other produce, like carrots and oranges, are scrambling for a piece of the action.

Of course, other fast-food chains have similar salads and fruit choices on their menus, but they have not had a comparable influence on the market because of their size. Burger King, for example, has 7,600 stores in the United States, while Wendy's has 5,900 and Arby's has 3,300. McDonald's has 13,700.

While salads have been offered at McDonald's in some form or another since the late 1980s, this is the first time they have been big sellers, and it is the first time the chain has sold fruit of any kind that did not reside between two layers of pie crust. Missa Bay, the company that runs the Swedesboro plant, which is one of six McDonald's apple slicing facilities around the country, could not be happier about that.

This story has been viewed 7924 times.

Comments will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned.

TOP top