Update: On April 3, McDonald's spokesperson Ashlee Yingling sent us this statement: "We read this story as a fun April Fools Day joke. Many readers got a laugh out of it, as did we. As much as we appreciate humor, McDonald's is serious about Corporate Responsibility. We have a long track record of industry leadership in community involvement, environmental protection, animal welfare, diversity and opportunity, and we work with our suppliers to help improve their practices. Each year we release a Corporate Responsibility Report, which can be found on www.crmcdonalds.com. In addition, McDonald's has been compiling nearly 150 of our global best practices aimed at making our restaurants more sustainable. We're planning to share them in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. While we are proud of the accomplishments to date, we look to continuously improve in these areas."
"McDonald's announced this morning that it would discontinue plans for a worldwide composting initiative after scientists confirmed that no item on the McDonald's menu is compostable," read environmental Web site Grist's top story on April 1, 2010. "McDonald's halted the plan after scientists at the University of California-Berkeley discovered that none of the items on the McDonald's menu would compost in the next 500 years."
Out of the over-abundance of April Fool's stories posted yesterday, Grist's gag tore through the social media-sphere like a kid eating a drive-thru Happy Meal. But why were so many people fooled?
Part of it has to do with a story posted on Grist a few weeks earlier, about this Happy Meal that Joann Bruso had purchased and placed on a shelf for one year. 365 days later, Bruso noted, there was no mold, no odor, none of the decomposition one normally associates with food sitting on a shelf for one year. (McDonald's has disputed Bruso's claim as an urban legend, something Bruso cheerily refutes). Grist writer Tyler Falk, who wrote the April Fools story, was partially inspired by Bruso's popular experiment. "It gave the notion that McDonald's food doesn't decompose that thin veil of plausibility that any successful April Fools' Day joke needs," says Mary Bruno, Grist's executive editor.
Among those fooled was GOOD and The New York Times writer Allison Arieff, who Tweeted the story dutifully. "I think I got so fooled because it seems entirely possible that the food they serve would mess with compost," she says. "I mean is there any remotely organic material left in their food?" A few minutes later, Arieff was alerted via Twitter reply that it was a joke—by @McDonald's itself!
Social media allows such lighthearted real-time interaction between corporations and journos, but there was something disturbing in the reply, which came from McDonald's Twitter contact Molly at McDonald's: "They say April Fools jokes are a form of flattery! This one had us laughing too! ^Mol"
Arieff shot back: "But what r u doing about waste?"
McDonald's replied with a link to their environmental responsibility page, which Arieff found dismissive. "Are they trying to be cool? sassy?" she tells us. "If they took the time to respond to people they should have responded by offering specific examples of what they were doing to reduce waste. On their site, most of their efforts seem marginal at best." (McDonald's does have composting consisting of a few pilot programs in Canada and London, according to their site.)
The hoax was successful because it employed what Bruno says is Grist's favorite approach: Use a joke to make a point. "People know, for the most part, that food from McDonald's is flat out not good for you," she says. "But it is saying something when you can get so many people to believe that no item on their menu will decompose in 500 years. Further evidence that people understand McDonald's is serving up what Michael Pollan likes to call "food-like substances"—or that people are incredibly gullible."
Ideally, says Bruno, their needling would encourage McDonald's to discuss more openly exactly how they're approaching waste and nutrition. "It could serve healthier food and implement a wide-reaching composting plan that would significantly cut down on the amount of food waste," she says. "It's such an industry leader that if McDonald's did it, everyone else would follow."
Arieff hopes the exchange with her new Twitter friend would help mobilize McDonald's into action—right now. "Clear up any misinformation," she says. "Show what you're doing that's positive. Reduce waste, don't 'explore ways to reduce waste'! Address the national conversation about obesity head-on and change your product!" Even though she got punked, Arieff says she did learn one thing by going to the McDonald's Web site: "I thought it was fascinating that in other countries, McDonald's offers much healthier options—like a side order of cherry tomatoes for kids or veggie options in India—they do nothing like that here except over-dressed caloric salads."