WHY ONE ISSUE IS TOO POLITICIZED FOR BIG COMPANIES

When it comes to large-scale food retailers, the third rail of food retailing is meat irradiation: Don't touch it.At least that's the view of Jack M. Greenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Corp. Jack was a general-session speaker at last week's executive conference of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, convened, as always, at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.Jack's comments

When it comes to large-scale food retailers, the third rail of food retailing is meat irradiation: Don't touch it.

At least that's the view of Jack M. Greenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Corp. Jack was a general-session speaker at last week's executive conference of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, convened, as always, at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.

Jack's comments about irradiation -- he specified that he prefers "cold pasteurization" -- came during a question period at the end of his presentation about the necessity incumbent upon a large-scale retailer such as McDonald's to seize high-profile issues and to keep in front of them by exhibiting leadership. He observed that after being battered over the years on pressure points ranging from packaging to product, it has become clear that the best course of action is to listen, learn and act ahead of crisis.

He used the current hot-button issue, food safety, to show the migration of practice at the company: "Twenty years ago, no one in the food industry pressed for food-safety regulations. Government provided direction and we followed. Today, there is a demand for each of us in the food industry to do our part in leading to find solutions. All of us want our consumers to feel confident in the safety and quality of their food. There is nothing more important to any of us.

"So it becomes a matter of outreach and collaboration, and collaboration not just between business and business, but business and government, business and the scientific community, and business and consumer groups."

No doubt it was with such in mind, then, that following his presentation Jack received a question about whether the use of irradiated product is in McDonald's future.

It isn't. Here's why: "We've followed developments here closely. But I don't think you'll see McDonald's leading in this area. The politics of this issue are strong, and I think the answer here is governmental mandate. Obviously, if government changes the rules, McDonald's will be among the first to follow."

Well, that wasn't all. Another questioner rose from the audience to ask why McDonald's could provide leadership concerning many other challenges, but not this one.

"Yes. I see the contradiction [implicit in the question] and it's accurate," he said. "We've looked at irradiation over the years, but McDonald's is a lightning rod. If the best thing for the industry and the U.S. consumer is to move that way, the best thing would be for McDonald's not to lead in this one case. It would become the fight of the century. What we need is a stronger governmental mandate in some of these areas, and that's what we're going to work for. I know that's different than taking a leadership position, but I think it's the right answer."

Indeed, it's the case in both supermarket retailing and food service that independents in localized markets are exhibiting the strongest leadership concerning irradiation, and are the entities likely to lead the industry toward this solution.

Sometimes, the downside risk of bigness is just too big to overcome.