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Fast Food Chains Respond to Consumers, Simplify Their Food

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Mark Mulkeen

The American food industry has become notorious for using potentially unsafe measures to produce their products. This has been especially true of the fast food industry, but 2014 has seen numerous large fast food restaurants make changes towards more responsibly produced food.

Wendy’s is the most recent fast-food chain to make plans to alter the way they produce food. They have now made it their goal to only use ingredients that are recognizable to the average consumer. Wendy’s CEO, Emil Brolick, announced this intention at the RBC Capital Markets Consumer and Retail Conference in Boston.

Said Brolick, “We want to get to the point where nothing in our labels look like it came from a chemistry book.”

Although this publicity move by Wendy’s is recent, they have not yet taken action to back up this intention. Their bread still contains the chemical, azodicarbonamide, which is used to make shoe rubber and yoga mats. It has the potential to be harmful in multiple ways. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit, which has lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban azodicarbonamide, claims that, when baked in bread, it produces the carcinogen urethane. The World Health Organization has reported additional potentially harmful effects. Their report cites evidence of the chemical inducing asthma, along with increased skin sensitivity to those who are exposed enough, such as workers who commonly deal with it.

Wendy’s is not alone in its use of this chemical. Various fast food chains, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Arby’s, Jack-in-the-Box, and Chick-fil-A also use the controversial ingredient in their bread. They use the chemical because it is an inexpensive baking powder that softens the bread these companies make. However, in February, Subway decided to stop using it in its bread.

Subway’s move comes in response to a petition to stop using the ingredient. The petition, which got over 95,000 signatures, was started by Vani Hari, founder of FoodBabe.com, which investigates the ingredients used in food and promotes healthy eating habits. The site’s petition points out that Subway only uses azodicarbonamide in the U.S. because it is banned in many countries around the world. She said that she targeted Subway specifically because it promotes itself as such a healthy restaurant.

Through her site, Hari has recently exerted considerable influence over the food industry. Among her influence has been Chick-fil-A. Back in 2012, she met with the chain to discuss concerns she had with its food practices. This meeting was in response to her writing about the questionable nature of the ingredients found in Chick-fil-A’s food. Not long after that meeting, the company decided to remove yellow dye from its chicken soup, and to begin testing the possibility of removing other additives from their food, such as artificial ingredients from bread, and high fructose corn syrup from sauces and dressing. Hari also discussed their use of antibiotics in their chicken at the meeting, and last month, they decided to begin serving antibiotic-free chicken.

The fast food movement we are seeing is part of an ongoing trend of consumers taking action by forming grassroots movements to pressure food companies into creating healthier, simpler, and more organic products. The Internet has been the main facilitator of these movements, often through petitions, like Hari’s. For example Sarah Cavanagh, a 15 year old from Mississippi, petitioned successfully to remove brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade, and is in the process of petitioning to have that same ingredient removed from Powerade. That petition has over 57,000 signatures. A petition has also surfaced online with over 141,000 signatures to have artificial colors removed from M&Ms.

As Subway searches for an alternative to azodicarbonamide, their prices have the potential to increase, considering that a more natural replacement will probably be more expensive. However, it is likely that Subway’s new image as “the company without shoe rubber in its food” will keep customers coming, even if they would have to deal with higher prices. Alternatively, the chains that have decided to keep the cheap chemical will likely take a public relations hit, and may actually lose customers to Subway as a result. Basically, it may be more expensive for Subway to make this change, and the expense may even reflect in its prices, but the PR benefits will probably outweigh the costs. Chick-fil-A are also likely to see the same results after answering to Hari’s demands.

We are most likely only seeing the beginning of this consumer pressure. As more petitioning is done, more companies are likely to reevaluate their ingrediants. Those who do not will stand a good chance of damaging their brands and falling behind to companies who do simplify their food.

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Bradford, Harry. “Wendy’s Promises No More ‘Chemistry Book’ Chemicals In Food.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Candice, Choi. “Subway Removing ‘Shoe Rubber’ Chemical From Bread.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 06 Feb. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Landau, Elizabeth, Jacque Wilson, and William Hudson Contributed to This Report. “Chick-fil-A to Serve Antibiotic-free Chicken.” CNN. Cable News Network, 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

“Launching Subway Petition – They Will Finally Hear From Us, Loud and Clear.” FoodBabe.com. N.p., 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Little, Katie. “That Chemical Subway Ditched? McDonald’s, Wendy’s Use It Too.” NBC News. National Broadcasting Company, 7 Feb. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Polis, Carey. “As Food Labels Get Closer Look, Ingredients Vanish.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

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