Consumer Group Urges Hospitals to Terminate McDonald's Contracts

Only 27 U.S. Hospitals House McDonald's Stores

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Nearly a year after Corporate Accountability International launched a campaign urging McDonald's to stop marketing to kids, it has turned its focus to hospitals that house a McDonald's and is imploring administrators to terminate contracts with the chain.

The consumer-advocacy group is targeting hospitals with an open letter as the next step of its effort get the company to "stop marketing junk food to children." During that campaign, CAI used the McDonald's annual shareholders' meeting and Federal Trade Commission's then-recently proposed guidelines as backdrops. The project included full-page ads in newspapers highlighting an open letter to McDonald's then-CEO Jim Skinner signed by some 550 doctors and health professionals.

No newspaper ads are planned for this effort, which was launched "in advance of [McDonald's] shareholders' meeting" in May, a CAI spokeswoman said. "We are ramping up our work with health professionals in the coming months and year on this issue, so there will be more to come," she said. Though other fast-food chains are in hospitals, CAI is concentrating on only McDonald's for now.

The heart of CAI's stand is that being in hospitals benefits McDonald's with an associated perception of healthfulness. The consumer-advocacy group also claims that McDonald's locations in such facilities builds an affinity for the brand with kids. Its main complaint about McDonald's has been its marketing to kids, which CAI has termed predatory. In April 2010, CAI launched a campaign to send Ronald McDonald to the retirement home, but the fast feeder maintained its support, saying that the clown represents the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

According to CAI, Cleveland Clinic and Children's Memorial Hospital of Chicago are among the hospitals with a McDonald's. A recent NPR story about hospitals' looking to replace fast-food outlets with more healthful options reported that the Cleveland Clinic tried in vain to end its contract with McDonald's 10 years ago so decided to wait for the contract to expire. In the meantime, the location has removed sugary beverages and trans fats from that menu.

"Simply put, the less kids are exposed to fast food and its marketing, the less likely they are to suffer from diet-related conditions like type 2 diabetes," Sara Deon, CAI's Value [the] Meal campaign director and signatory of the recent letter, said in a statement. "McDonald's has a long history of putting a healthy label on an inherently unhealthy brand. It has used health-care providers and institutions to help promote this image for decades."

The company said it relies on the consumers' sense of personal responsibility.

"McDonald's promotes the idea that it's not about where you eat; rather, it's about what and how much a person chooses to consume during every eating occasion," McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement to Ad Age . "We are proud of our menu and the actions we have taken to evolve the variety of choices we offer our customers, which have led our industry."

The chain offers "a wide variety of menu choices that can be made into meal combinations that provide less than one-third of the of the government's daily recommendation for total fat, sodium and calories," based on the 2005 Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Ms. Proud added. She also noted that there are just 27 McDonald's in hospitals in the U.S.

Given the relatively small number of stores, CAI's angle of marketing-to-kids-via-hospital-locations could be deemed dubious. The group's language painting the fast feeder as predatory and opportunistic is hard-hitting enough without inserting children into the equation.

"It's no surprise that McDonald's sites stores in hospitals," the group charges. "After all, for decades, McDonald's has attempted to co-opt the health community, to deflect blame for the epidemic of disease that it has helped drive and to pose itself as part of the solution."

McDonald's has been dealing with another consumer-advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed a lawsuit in California aimed at stopping the fast feeder from using toys to market directly to children. A judge dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice and barred the plaintiffs from amending the complaint.

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