June 19, 2015 3:34 pm

Your Food: Is consumer demand changing the fast food landscape?

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WATCH ABOVE: Have you looked at the ingredient list lately at your local fast food restaurant? Do you know what those chicken nuggets are made of? Lots of questions are being asked these days about what North Americans are eating. The trend is leaving a big impact on the food industry. John Hadden explains.

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Global News

In 2012, Texas mom Bettina Siegal learned about pink slime, a notorious ground beef made with different parts of trimmings and fat. The U.S. national school lunch program was purchasing seven million pounds of the “finely texturized meat-based product” – this didn’t sit well for the mom.

She launched a change.org petition. She didn’t even think she’d garner a couple hundred signatures.

“This was one mother trying to get the government to do her bidding. It seemed like it had a snowball’s chance in hell,” Pascal Zamprelli, national director of Change.org’s Canadian branch, told Global News.

Siegal thought the same: “I would have hoped for a few hundred signatures at most, just to make my point,” she wrote in an op-ed.

But less than two weeks later, nearly 260,000 people joined her cause. In a single day, Siegal saw 100,000 signatures added to the petition. On the ninth day, the USDA relented, handing school districts the option of buying ground beef without pink slime.

Ultimately, Change.org closed the petition and labelled it a “confirmed victory.”

READ MORE: Kraft Dinner to remove synthetic colours by 2016, company says

Zamprelli says it’s the first food-based petition that gained international attention. But more followed: Kraft Dinner subbing out orange dyes for cumin and paprika. Subway reworking its recipe to remove the “yoga mat” chemical from its bread. Soft drink juggernauts, including Coke and Pepsi, removing controversial additives from their products.

In the past few years, consumer advocacy groups and online petitions peddling various causes have brought the fast food industry to its knees. Is the conscious consumer forcing corporations to turn over a new leaf?

“The Internet has brought a massive explosion of transparency, a lot more access to information about what we’re eating, our supply chains and production. We can see decision-making in the boardrooms,” Zamprelli says.

And that’s just the first step. Now, savvy, in-tune consumers can share the information they’ve gathered with the general public.

“We have a critical mass of better informed consumers, they speak to each other, there’s collective action and they’re mobilizing and able to collaborate very quickly. This is what I believe is changing the behaviour of decision-makers,” he says.

READ MORE: Chemical in Subway bread also in Canada, but will be removed, company says

The Internet paved the way to accessing information, but sites such as change.org along with food bloggers and consumer advocacy groups acting as industry watchdogs have led the way to rallying the consumer.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest champions its own causes, too – KFC traded in its hydrogenated frying oil for soybean oil, making its fried chicken trans-fat-free, Wendy’s removed sugary drinks from its kids’ menu, and health officials across North America are slowly adding nutritional information to restaurant menus to help consumers make better-informed food choices.

Bill Jeffery, spokesperson for the Canadian arm of CSPI, says that with chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure on the rise, these dozens of tweaks aren’t enough, though.

“We’re not going to get there by every three months having one company doing something differently. Federal, provincial, and local governments really need to reflect on whether the food supply is advancing our desire to have a healthy society,” he told Global News.

READ MORE: Wendy’s drops soda from kids’ menu in Canada, U.S.

He suggests that fast food companies always had a side menu of salads, grilled chicken burgers and water bottles, to accommodate the health-conscious consumer.

“Mom wants a salad, not just a burger and fries and if she can’t eat, they’re not going to McDonald’s. There was always diversified offerings, [fast food chains] want to say they’re catering to this constituency but truth of the matter is, they still sell way more soft drinks, salty food and sugary food,” Jeffery said.

When asked how much of sales are tied to healthy menu options, a Burger King spokeswoman simply said that the burger chain knew its Whopper was its bestseller.

“This is what we are known for and naturally, this is the favourite among our customers,” she wrote.

“We chose to expand our product offering because that is what the Canadian consumer wants,” the spokesperson said in an email.

READ MORE: Here are the 19 ingredients that go into McDonald’s French fries

McDonald’s, with its Our Food. Your Questions campaign, added egg whites, fruit side dishes and even cucumbers (the first time the vegetable made its way onto any McDonald’s menu item) to its roster.

Salads make up only two per cent of sales. Its fruit and walnut salad was discontinued altogether.

There is no exact science in determining how many of change.org’s petitions are tied to the fast food industry. That’s because petition-writers may be tagging their causes under various categories.

But Zamprelli says petitions related to food globally make up just under two per cent – they account for 3.2 per cent of all signatures, though. This is an impressive feat.

READ MORE: What Canadians want to know about what’s in fast food meals

“It suggests that petitions related to food, broadly-speaking, are more successful than your average change.org petition. The data suggests it’s a cause area that does better than others. We see some of the biggest victories around these issues,” he explained.

Not all fast food joints are as willing to concede that the consumer holds so much sway. When Subway removed azodicarbonamide – nicknamed the yoga mat chemical – from its bread just two months after an online petition made waves, it said the change was already in the works, for example.

“It’s a miraculous thing that change doesn’t come until there’s huge public outcry. Then [the fast food chains] say they were planning this all along…I’m not saying they’re being disingenuous…but they sure are keeping it a tightly held secret and [these changes] aren’t reflected in their practices,” Jeffery said.

READ MORE: How fast food tried to get svelte in 2014

He suggests that fast food outlets have to put their best foot forward to consumers and regulators, but also have to be accountable to their stakeholders most interested in the bottom line. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Zamprelli says he thinks the tides are shifting, though. With social media, and online petitions that act as a mediator between consumers and corporations, big businesses have to embrace consumer feedback.

“We’re in a much more conversational era – it’s humbling, but a smart corporation will be able to adapt and be flexible. They’ll listen to [the consumer], consider what we have to say and realize it’s in their best interest to pay attention,” he said.

Kate Comeau, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians of Canada, cautions that the handfuls of causes coming out of the woodwork may be distracting. Ultimately, consumers need to make eating at home a priority, limit their intake of fast food and keep processed goods to a minimum.

READ MORE: As more Canadians pass on fast food, McDonald’s tries to get fitter

“It takes away from a message towards health – we focus on the fact that Kraft Dinner is removing a certain colour when maybe we should be focusing on the fact that kids aren’t eating enough vegetables and fruit. It shifts the message toward demonizing certain foods rather than focusing on what we need to improve the health of kids and families,” she suggests.

“We need to look at the bigger picture. You’re using things made from a box,” she said.

We asked fast food companies how they tried to get healthy. Here’s how they responded:

McDonald’s: The golden arches provided a laundry list of 19 changes along with dates for when they were implemented. Among them: adding apple slices, grilled chicken, 1 per cent milk, salad, multigrain bagels, whole wheat tortillas, and fruit and maple oatmeal.

Chipotle: In an emailed response, a spokesman said “…we are not a particularly good fit for this, in that we don’t really change our menu. It’s been largely the same throughout our history, so we aren’t a company that chases fads or trends in dining.”

Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut: A spokeswoman referred Global News to this report that outlines a handful of initiatives the Yum! Brands has put together.

Wendy’s: No comment

Subway: No comment.

Tim Horton’s: No comment.

Starbucks: No comment.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

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