A war in the fast food industry has been brewing underneath our feet for years. Perhaps you saw the first few skirmishes awhile back, with ads from Subway claiming that you could actually lose weight eating their sandwiches. (Happy 15 years of keeping off that weight, Jared!) Maybe you noticed more recently how certain companies known for offering cheap, late night, stoner-friendly bits of meat and cheese were hiring celebrity chefs known for health-conscious cuisine to shape their menus. These moves aren't coincidence, or evidence of some newfound conscience in the fast food industry. They're all just small battles in the multi-million dollar war being waged over one tiny little five-letter word:
In a great article over at Slate, S.T. VanAirsdale details the change in advertising philosophy over the years from "you don't want to know..." to a more transparent "see how fresh our ingredients are!" Of course, as you'd expect, there's plenty of ways for the companies to use linguistic gymnastics to skirt past what the USDA defines as "fresh" in their guidelines.
For instance, while Subway's promotion of "eating fresh" in their ads implies that they, themselves, use "fresh" ingredients, and for the breads and vegetables, there's some truth to it. But they also use meats that are sliced miles and miles away from where they're eventually placed onto those breads and veggies. To the average consumer, that kind of practice doesn't entirely give off the feeling of "fresh."
(That last bit of information, actually, comes via their sliced-meats competitor Arby's, who hired an investigative documentarian team -- "documentarian," in this case, also being thrown around without much respect for the definition -- to find out where Subway slices their cold cuts. So, yeah, the inter-company back-and-forth over who's "fresher" is getting a bit feisty.)
The whole article's definitely worth a read, but what may be the most shocking fact uncovered was that the fast food business model wasn't always about utilizing as many shortcuts as possible to keep prices down. For instance, this bit about the earlier days of Taco Bell:
You can find sentimental Taco Bell consumers and employees from this era around the Web recounting the Fresh Food Place's qualifications with pride: Ground beef arrived at stores daily, unfrozen. Lettuce, tomatoes and onions were cleaned and chopped up on site. Cheese was grated and tortillas fried into taco shells each morning. Refried beans were prepared in store from whole pinto beans also delivered daily. (One Taco Bell alum cites a hazing ritual in which new employees would be assigned to "count the beans that went into each batch.") Thirty years ago, it seems, fresh actually meant the same thing in commercials as it does in dictionaries.
Meaning that legitimately using "fresh" ingredients, and not simply trying to trick consumers into thinking they actually are, is something that can actually work. In-N-Out certainly does it. Panera Bread and Chipotle are giving it a whirl. But maybe there's an even more important question to ask in all of this: Is "fresh" really what we want out of our fast food anyway?
Years back, Wendy's made ads claiming their burgers were "fresh, never frozen." Clearly, this didn't mean that every Wendy's manager was heading to the butcher each morning and picking out what pieces of beef they'd be using for that day's menu. It meant that Wendy's was using the same factory-farmed beef they always were, but were just keeping the burgers refrigerated at just above the legal definition of "freezing." Which, when you're dealing with that kind of meat in the first place, may not be the greatest idea around. Instead of consumers responding to the ads with "hooray for fresh meat!" it was more along the lines of, "actually, would you mind freezing it and keeping us from getting all sorts of foodborne illness please, thanks."
Maybe it's simply best to throw away the subterfuge of trying to make consumers think what they're eating is actually healthy. Maybe, in cases where stores are not changing how they go about business, it's better to just be honest and let them know what they already do: When it comes to fast food, you're getting what you pay for.