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McDonald's Goes Local

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McDonald's has debuted a new campaign for Washington State to show exactly how much of its menu is locally sourced. 

The fast-food chain has created a microsite that lists specific products and their origin. For instance, the site states that 95 percent of McDonald's fries and Filet-O-Fish fillets and 85 percent of the apples served in Washington State come from Washington.

Billboards for the campaign show fries and a potato with a headline that reads: "Served in Seattle, Grown in Pasco." However, a small disclaimer appears at the bottom: “Participation and duration may vary,” which has some industry experts categorizing the campaign as "localwashing.”

Eric Giandelone, director of food-service research at Mintel, said the inclusion of the disclaimer on the billboards leaves McDonald's open to criticism because "[the chain] isn’t spelling out percents or numbers that we can verify." Giandelone cited a campaign for Chipotle Mexican Grill, which promised to increase its locally grown produce from 35 percent in 2009 to 50 percent in 2010, as part of the “Food with Integrity” program. In fact, Chipotle redesigned nearly all of its marketing efforts in 2010 to reflect that goal.

While eating local is often considered an environmental decision, communities around the nation are embracing the trend in order to keep money in the area. According to a report by Sustainable Seattle, if 20 percent of food sales went to local spending, King County, Seattle, would see a $5 billion annual income increase. But that’s if the spending stayed in the county.

Exactly how far can food travel and still be considered local? According to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, food in American travels an average of 1,500 miles from its place of origin, with lettuce topping the chart at 2,055 miles. In comparison, CUESA shows that the same food at local farmers markets travels approximately 100 miles. Chipotle said its “local” produce comes from within 250 miles of Chipotle's distribution centers, but there is no government standard that defines use of the word “local.”

From Frito-Lay’s new "Chip Tracker" to Hellmann’s "Real Food Movement," large brands are putting a lot of ad dollars toward touting their local connections. According to Giandelone, the recent local marketing efforts in the food-service sector are all about “removing the impression that they’re taking money away from the ‘mom and pop’ shop that doesn’t really exist.”