McDonald's CEO: Don't Believe Fast Food 'Fiction'

McDonald's Corp. (MCD) CEO Jim Skinner told shareholders Thursday not to believe the recent surge of "fiction" maligning fast food and pledged that the company will be more aggressive and creative in setting the record straight.

Skinner's comments at the fast-food chain's annual meeting were the strongest evidence yet of its initiative to counter negative publicity from a new children's book and soon-to-be-released movie, both associated with the 2001 book "Fast Food Nation."

"These days, big equals bad," he said at the meeting at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. "And fiction somehow has become more compelling than fact. You have every reason to be proud of your company, our values and our social responsibility record."

Skinner said McDonald's is a leader in food safety and quality, toy safety, employment opportunity, training and development, charitable giving, animal welfare and the environment.

"Fictitious information irresponsibly published and reported in the media has people questioning the quality and safety of fast food in general," he said. "But at McDonald's, we work closely with our suppliers to develop and implement the highest standards, and have for over 50 years."

Concerns about the nutritional content of fast food have risen in recent years along with obesity rates among both children and adults. McDonald's has responded to complaints by consumer advocates to make its food healthier by offering more salads and fruit items and other menu options.

But that pressure has stepped up in 2006 with the publication of "Chew On This," co-written by "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser, and publicity about the upcoming film version of "Fast Food Nation." The book adds to criticism of the fast-food industry for its perceived role in increased obesity and views McDonald's and the industry harshly on the issues of food safety and employment security, among others.

The company said last month it would "ramp up" promotion of its healthier menu choices in response to the new book, taking a more active tack than it did following the 2004 documentary, "Super Size Me," which skewered the fast food business.

"We are committed to taking action that will most impact consumer perception and trust. And we will be more aggressive and creative in setting the record straight," said Skinner, who then showed a company podcast touting it as a leader in food quality safety.

A farmworker and a human rights activist assailed the company at the meeting for running a public relations campaign instead of addressing what they called a human rights crisis in the tomato fields of Florida.

"The workers who pick the tomatoes that go on McDonald's sandwiches and salads work under conditions that can only be described as sweatshops — poverty wages, no overtime pay, no right to organize and no benefits," said Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in southwest Florida.

Skinner responded that McDonald's has worked closely with its suppliers to maintain the highest standards for its workers and will continue to do so.

Shareholders voted in favor of a resolution urging the McDonald's board of directors to seek shareholder approval of any severance agreements with senior executives that would reward them with sums triple or more the combined size of their base pay plus bonus — payments widely known as "golden parachutes." Chairman Andrew McKenna said the board would consider the recommendation.

The shareholders rejected a resolution asking McDonald's to identify and label all genetically engineered ingredients in its products.

McDonald's shares rose 21 cents to $33.16 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange. They are down 2 percent in 2006.