Is Fast Food Being Forced to Go Fresh?

13 Apr, 2013

by Tom Laskawy, via

Lettuce wrapped burgerWe all know what Bad Fast Food looks like (I’m looking at you, KFC Double Down!) And we all know that tens of millions of Americans eat the stuff anyway—whether out of choice or necessity. So can there be such a thing as “Good Fast Food”? There had better be—or else the fast food biz is in real trouble.

Here’s food writer Mark Bittman, writing in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine:

Soda consumption is down; meat consumption is down; sales of organic foods are up; more people are expressing concern about G.M.O.s, additives, pesticides and animal welfare. The lines out the door—first at Chipotle and now at Maoz, Chop’t, Tender Greens and Veggie Grill—don’t lie. According to a report in Advertising Age, McDonald’s no longer ranks in the top 10 favorite restaurants of Millennials, a group that comprises as many as 80 million people.

Fast food companies understand that Bad Fast Food might be approaching its expiration date. Rather than clinging ever tighter to their fattening products like Coca Cola did, they’re remixing them. Some of it is just window dressing: Bittman offers the example of McDonald’s heavily sweetened yogurt parfait, which just replaces fat with sugar. Other outfits toss a few salads at customers, or push healthier items off to the side as if embarrassed by their existence. After all, having healthier options means admitting your main offerings aren’t, well, healthy.

But Taco Bell just announced a new effort to remake its menu along healthier lines. And Chipotle, which has been called the Apple of fast food, is nipping at the big dogs’ heels. The company bills itself as serving “food with integrity,” cares about animal welfare and to some extent the plight of farmworkers, and yet has $3 billion in annual sales with double-digit annual growth. Other fresh competitors are popping up like superweeds.

But it’s not just consumers’ changing tastes that are giving fast food companies indigestion. It’s the outside shocks to the fast food system—which Bittman doesn’t address—that will create the real opportunity for alternatives. The industry has a lot to swallow if it’s going to continue its domination of the food landscape (and make no mistake—it dominates).

First there’s climate change. The ongoing drought is hitting beef producers hard, and this raises the prospect of the end of an era of cheap meat. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. After all, the current drought may end, but climate scientists project that the Southwest—Texas is the top beef-producing state in the country—will enter permanent drought in a matter of decades. And if meat prices spike, even McDonald’s might decide the time is right for alternative ingredients.

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