Why Do McDonald’s Customers Need the FDA?

Are McDonald’s customers safer because of the Food and Drug Administration?

mcdonalds building

We need the FDA to keep our food safe, right?

But what if people don’t trust the FDA?

As it happens, the Food and Drug Administration has declared the newest, uh, creation of J.R. Simplot Company—a genetically modified potato. It has their stamp of approval. J. R. Simplot is free to sell it and consumers are free to eat it. With the FDA’s approval, we are all supposed to feel confident that the potato is safe to eat.

But McDonald’s doesn’t care. According to the Idaho Statesman, “McDonald’s rejects Simplot’s genetically modified potato.”

The J.R. Simplot Co.’s freshly approved genetically modified potato is not being welcomed by one of the company’s oldest business partners.

McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food company and a longtime buyer of Simplot potatoes for french fries, says it doesn’t plan to buy Simplot’s latest genetically modified organism, the Innate potato.

“McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices,” the company said in a statement.

The Innate line of potatoes received federal approval Nov. 7 to go to market. The potatoes have fewer sugars than conventional potatoes and less asparagine, which has the potential to become a carcinogen – acrylamide – when fried. The modified potato contains only potato genes, not genes from other organisms. Hence its name, “Innate.”

Simplot spokesman Doug Cole didn’t address the company’s plans to sell to the fast-food industry or the dehydrated potato industry, which both have urged growers against planting GMO potatoes. But Cole said the fresh potato market would embrace Innate.

I’m not as optimistic as Cole is. Another possibility is that, once Simplot starts talking about how much improved their new GMO potato is, people might cut back on eating potatoes altogether. After all, the only way to market the new potato is to emphasize all the problems or potential problems with the normal potato. If consumers are suspicious of GMO, the net result could be that they change their diets.

So why is McDonald’s not willing to make the change. The answer is that the customer is king. While McDonald’s people might mis-judge what their customers want, they are not going to go against that perception. Thus, the FDA’s approval is meaningless. In fact, many people know that “regulatory capture” means that industries wield enough influence with the FDA to use the agency as a stamp of approval to market their products. Whether that has happened in this case, if customers suspect it is possible, then the FDA’s approval can’t matter. McDonald’s will not start forcing customer’s to eat food they don’t trust.

Which brings us to a question: If McDonald’s can’t use the FDA’s approval, then what use is the Federal organization? If the public doesn’t trust the FDA to protect them, then how do they know any McDonald’s food is safe?

The first answer is that they know that McDonald’s wants to maintain the public trust. Selling customers unsafe food is a sure way to hurt their business. The second answer is that they have the courts. They can sue McDonald’s for negligence and damages if they have to.

So without the FDA, the fast food chain has plenty of incentive to sell safe food to the best of their knowledge and ability. Does that absolutely guarantee safety? No. But the FDA cannot provide such absolute safety either.

All the FDA can do is give customers a false sense of security and provide cover for industries so they can claim that they have done due diligence.