McNugget slims down, gets a makeover

Emboldened by the sales-swelling launch of premium salads and McGriddles breakfast sandwiches, McDonald’s Corp. is set to roll out significant changes to one of its best-selling product innovations: the Chicken McNugget.

During the next six weeks, McDonald’s will begin selling a smaller, all-white-meat McNugget in all of its 13,600 U.S. restaurants. The new chicken entree is designed to be healthier and to meet a growing consumer preference for breast meat.

But it’s a risky move for McDonald’s, where McNuggets have been one of its most popular and profitable products since the company introduced them 20 years ago. McDonald’s must now convince about a fifth of the nation – those who consume 4.8 billion McNuggets – that the change is good.

In fact, “change is good” is a key phrase in McDonald’s new advertising push to tackle consumer worries head-on. The ads, run during tests this year, are specifically designed to comfort kids who gobble up the 30-percent-dark-meat McNuggets by the millions every day.

“It’s a change that’s being talked about, so they’re going to know about it,” said Wendy Cook, McDonald’s vice president of menu innovation. “Obviously, how kids are going to react to the change is key.”

If successful, the new product could help McDonald’s Chief Executive Jim Cantalupo reinvigorate a company that slowed in its growth and struggled to meet Wall Street expectations. If not, it is likely to dent those efforts.

Either way, the change also will have a tremendous effect on the U.S. poultry industry, which now uses almost half the birds grown to make processed chicken products – a market pioneered by McDonald’s.

“We’re a big chicken customer for the industry, so when we make a change in chicken, the world feels it,” Cook said.

Poultry experts say it is a gamble that could backfire.

William “Benji” Mikel, a University of Kentucky professor and a specialist in meat processing and product development, worries that the move could be akin to New Coke, Coca Cola’s failed early `90s relaunch of its popular soft drink.

“I think they probably have a good idea,” he said, “but we, as consumers, we’re a fickle bunch, and there’s an awful lot of product that hits the market every year that never makes it.”

Although consumers often demand healthier options, few fast-food players have made a killing selling more nutritious food, many struggling to wean consumers off a fatty diet that is both affordable and convenient to eat on the go. McDonald’s realizes the risk in making the change, said Cook. But the company has embraced it, given the increasing demand for chicken products and changing consumer tastes. It says the switch is supported through extensive consumer tests, both in labs and restaurants, over the past six months.

“Chicken is the fastest growing category in terms of how people eat, and it’s also the largest. Chicken is very, very important to us, as beef is,” Cook said. “It’s clear now that consumers prefer white meat, so we started to work on how we might evolve the McNugget to a situation where it is now all white meat.”

Consumers still will be able to get the same number of McNuggets for the same price, but the new all-white-meat version weighs 16 grams once cooked, 2 grams less, or 11 percent lighter, than the current family favorite.

However, McDonald’s said the change is not a ploy to make more money on each McNugget.

“Our cost per nugget is higher. White meat costs more than dark meat,” Cook said.

And as demand for breast meat increases, other less powerful chicken buyers might look to change to using more dark meat.

“You may see some other people using cheaper cuts for their products because they can’t compete with a McDonald’s,” Mikel said. “There’s no doubt such a change will have a huge impact on the industry, which can’t simply just ramp up production.”

In addition to reassuring advertising for the new McNugget, the relaunch will be accompanied by new packaging and marketing to highlight the nutritious value of eating all-white-meat McNuggets, the company said.

McDonald’s representatives said they have been contemplating a switch for years, denying that current concern over fast rising rates of obesity is driving the change. However, the launch is well-timed for McDonald’s, which recently has come under especially harsh criticism on the healthiness of its food.

The company this year secured the dismissal of a high-profile lawsuit in New York that accused McDonald’s food of causing obesity in two children, but not before the judge opined that McNuggets were a “McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook.”

In an early judgment in the case, the judge listed 30 or 40 ingredients other than chicken, highlighting the fact that McNuggets were far fattier than burgers, and he questioned whether consumers really knew about the manufactured nature of the product.

The new six-piece, all-white-meat McNugget meal will contain 260 calories, down from 310. With 16 grams of fat per six-piece serving, the new version shaves a fifth of the worrisome fat from the meal.

Whatever the case, for most of the millions of kids who munch on McNuggets, the bottom line is maintaining the familiar taste, a fact McDonald’s is acutely aware of.

“That was basically the essence of our testing, so we focused on making that right,” said Cook. “Kids don’t like change. We don’t want to disappoint any of our customers, especially our youngest customers.”