Chicago: Biting into a McDonald's French fry should be like "walking on freshly fallen snow".
Barbara Booth, the company's director of sensory science, was presiding over the fast-food giant's semi-annual French Fry Evaluation — a contest among McCain Foods, ConAgra Foods's Lamb Weston and J.R. Simplot to cook perfect versions of McDonald's ‘world famous fries'.
"Close your eyes," Booth told the three executives and 11 supplier representatives as they sniffed, sampled and spit fries. "If you can't tell what you're eating in three seconds, there's a problem."
As chains such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Smashburger attract diners looking for a better burger, McDonald's is more than ever focused on the quality of its food. And in an age of 24/7 social media and hyper-informed consumers, the world's largest burger chain is being forced to open up about the provenance of its beef, potatoes and more.
In January, McDonald's began featuring online homages to its suppliers. In one ‘Supplier Story' video, Frank Martinez, who farms about 1,000 acres of potatoes in Warden, Washington, brushes the dirt from a spud, slices it and declares: "Good potato!"
While sales growth at McDonald's stores open at least 13 months has exceeded 3 per cent for two years, the company is "mindful American consumers are wanting more education than ever before," Mark Kalinowski, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott in New York, said.
"They want to make sure that they are not losing business to competitors that do a better job at communicating this type of message."
Providing more information about the McDonald's menu is also a way to change the conversation, according to Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Locally sourced potatoes don't change the fact that a large order of McDonald's fries delivers 25 grams of fat.
McDonald's tries "to come across as warm and fuzzy," Jacobson said. "They don't show the frying of the potatoes" which "end up far higher in calories than they start out at."
Last year, McDonald's store owners received an emailed call to arms from the chain's US president, Jan Fields. The industry has been "negatively impacted" by "food and product safety concerns," Fields wrote. "Our ultimate success will require a fundamental shift in how we approach Brand Trust and how we incorporate these efforts into everything we do."
Americans "have more questions about where their food comes from — whether they're purchasing it from McDonald's or whether they're purchasing it from a grocery store," Heather Oldani, a McDonald's spokeswoman said. "We've just started to scratch the surface with the ‘Meet Our Suppliers' campaign."
Five Guys and Chipotle locally source their food. Some Five Guys locations post signs identifying the specific farm where their potatoes come from and the burrito seller tries to source veggies from nearby farms.
While McDonald's took to Twitter about two years ago to get feedback on its menu and stores, it's now focusing the online conversations on suppliers and food origin, Rick Wion, the social media chief, whose nine workers regularly send Twitter followers to YouTube videos about growers, said.
"We're continually looking at ways we can promote our suppliers and talk about what goes into our supply chain," he said. "We get questions about it all the time."