McDonald's Gaffe Calls for Further Supply Chain Transparency

Meagan Douglas
Wed, Mar 4, 2015

The general public is taking further interest in what exactly they are putting in their bodies. When it comes to fast food, sometimes consumers aren't entirely certain. 

ABC News reported that an Indianapolis police officer drank a McDonald's iced tea recently and was hospitalized because the drink evidently contained cleaning chemicals. Reserve Officer Paul Watkins filled half of his cup with unsweetened tea, the other with sweetened at 10 p.m. Feb. 21, only to have his throat and stomach burn immediately after taking a sip before his nightly shift began. Shortly thereafter, Watkins became violently ill.

According to Watkins' wife, Jerilyn, the McDonald's manager told him employees had put a cleaning solution - later determined as a "heavy duty degreaser"  chemical by the police report - into the tea dispenser and had forgotten to put a cup over the nozzle to indicate that particular machine was out of service.

Watkins has returned to his daily life, but he still experiences some pain and burning in his throat. 

Supply Chain Transparency Must Improve
Consumers are now more savvy than ever before, and they demand to know not only what they're putting into their bodies, but also what types of products they're regularly using and how they're made. McDonald's recent woes shed light on the need for increased visibility and transparency in supply chains across all types of industries. Certainly, it doesn't help that McDonalds has a track record for unhealthy food; the recent mishap only fuels the fire that is McDonald's reputation of serving highly processed, unhealthy meals to its customers.

The most successful fast casual and fast food restaurants are the franchises that promote their brand in an honest and transparent way. For example, Chipotle is well-known for its use of fresh, local ingredients and promote healthy and trustworthy sourcing. By contrast, the nation's largest fast food chains provide little to no insight as to how their supply chain operates and where they get their food from. Leaving customers in the dark with regard to product manufacturing is no longer acceptable.

Invest in the Long Haul
Although McDonald's serves millions of customers each day, its reputation is slowly deteriorating thanks in part to the not-so-public gaffes in recent memory. For instance, the McLibel trial - the longest case in U.K. history - saw McDonalds fight against a small environmental group which called out the international brand for encouraging litter, mistreating animals and workers and destroying rainforests. Although the case was nearly 25 years ago, reputations like that don't wear away overnight.

More recently, Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" and Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" both shed light onto the corporation's continual neglect in advertising healthy or quality food.

For these reasons, The Harvard Business Review suggests supply chains need to become much more transparent going forward. In fact, the investment needs to happen over the long term because these types of reputation-related  problems don't fix themselves quickly. Even though McDonalds is now pushing a healthier food campaign, the negative stigma of unhealthy food and bad environmental practices will likely stick for some time. 

However, it does seem as if McDonalds is investing wisely in its supply chain management. The Elliott Review, the official U.K. government review of the recent horse meat scandal, actually points to McDonald's supply chain for praise. The New Yorker reported last October that McDonald's rolled out a supply chain transparency campaign called, "Our Food, Your Questions," in an attempt to address widespread customer skepticism that their products are in fact healthy. The article also pointed to a series of documentaries that used former "Mythbusters" personality Grant Imahara as its lead to figure out what was exactly in a McRib. While not all consumers like or agree with McDonalds, their effort to increase supply-chain transparency is evident.

Honesty Through Improved Oversight
Clearly, companies are taking this route going forward. The recent rise of fast food and fast casual restaurants that offer supply chain transparency and promote healthy food is a sign from consumers: People want to know what's going into their bodies. 

Supply chain transparency isn't exclusive to food businesses, either. Consumers want to know how the products they buy are made and if the company is engaging in ethical behavior. The best way to promote this type of behavior, and improve customer retention, is through transparency. The advancement and proliferation of mobile devices and digital technology has made it easier for companies to improve supply chain visibility and agility, both of which make it easier for companies to relay their supply chain practices to the general public. Investing in cutting-edge supply chain management software will dramatically improve production and greatly assist in transparency. 

Protecting Your Brand
In its white paper, "Protecting Your Brand - The Food Traceability Survival Guide," RFgen identifies ways to increase transparency in the food supply chain.

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