McDonalds.Photo: roadsidepicturesUnder intense pressure from health advocates, and with the kind of fanfare that only a gazillion dollar multinational company can muster, McDonald’s has announced that it will soon include apple slices and a significantly smaller serving of French fries in its Happy Meal. The fast food giant will also cut sodium by 15 percent in all of its food by 2015. While most Americans may find this about as scintillating as cleaning out the cat litter box, the media and public health community clearly found it fascinating based on the number of published articles and blog posts, and the lively discussion that emerged on Twitter.

So just how significant is the McDonald’s announcement? And how should the health community react? Before I discuss this, let’s clarify a few points:

  1. McDonald’s, one of the largest and most successful corporations in the world, is only interested in the health of its customers as it relates to its own bottom line.
  2. The Happy Meal changes are the result of unrelenting pressure exerted by child health advocates including bills passed in San Francisco and Santa Clara County that set nutrition standards for kids’ fast food meals sold with toys, as well as a lawsuit from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
  3. Even with apple slices, a smaller French fry portion, and reduced sodium, the Happy Meal is still not a healthy meal.

So how should health advocates react when fast food behemoth and industry leader McDonald’s blinks? Should we praise this step forward, even if it’s a small step? Here’s how I think we should handle this type of announcement:

First, let’s pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Concern about childhood obesity and unhealthy fast food are at an all-time high thanks to food reformers’ efforts. The fact that the first lady has made childhood obesity her signature issue is testament to the growing success of the healthy food movement. And now, a multinational corporation that made its fortune selling unhealthy junk food is touting nutritional improvements in an attempt to mend its image, maintain market share, and stave off public health policy that would regulate what it can sell and advertise to kids. This is progress.

Second, we should acknowledge these positive changes, even if we feel they are inadequate. Whether McDonald’s initiated the change in order to preempt policy or entice health conscious families back to the golden arches isn’t the point; we’re constantly criticizing McDonald’s and other fast food chains so it’s only fair that we acknowledge positive changes. And by acknowledgment, I mean just that — let’s save the effusive praise for when McDonald’s makes its Happy Meal the truly healthy meal our kids deserve. I thought that the first lady’s muted and measured comments — she called McDonald’s plan “positive steps” toward her Let’s Move! goal of ending childhood obesity — set the tone perfectly. Ms. Obama also added that she “looks forward” to the company’s “efforts in the years to come.” That’s a diplomatic way of saying you’re going to have to do a lot better.

Finally, let’s keep up the pressure on McDonald’s by continuing to highlight the shortcomings of the Happy Meal. If McDonald’s had seen fit to include a non-fried vegetable and a whole wheat bun for the hamburger, and had made low-fat plain milk the default beverage rather than soda, this would have been a momentous announcement. Health advocates will not rest until McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants have made meaningful changes (via either internal or external policy change) including a truly healthy kids’ meal and an agreement to end to marketing to children.

Jan Fields, the president of McDonald’s USA, said of the new Happy Meal: “McDonald’s will always try to do the right thing, and we know we can help make a difference in our communities.” I think McDonald’s will continue to do the right thing — but only if health advocates hold their feet to the fire. Kindling, anyone?