(Oct. 28) OAK BROOK, Ill. — Produce can play a key role in changing the public’s perception of McDonald’s Corp. as simply a hamburger giant, said Ralph Alvarez, president of McDonald’s NA.

“Absolutely,” Alvarez said Oct. 24 during the company’s first quality symposium. “We proudly sell great hamburgers, but we’re selling a lot more chicken and a lot more fruits and vegetables and salads than we used to.

“Items like salads and fruits and chicken are growing faster, because we put more emphasis on them in the last two years.”

As America gets fatter, the fast-food industry has been at the center of controversy, and McDonald’s, as the industry leader, has been the flash point.

The company has been the target of lawsuits, books — even the recent film “Supersize Me.”

One of the goals of the quality symposium was to change McDonald’s image in the eyes of consumers. The company said Oct. 25 that by the end of 2006, packaging in two-thirds of its locations worldwide would bear nutrition information.

Produce will play a central role in the company’s efforts to change its image, Alvarez said.

“You’ve seen it evolving the last four years,” he said. “Produce is significantly more prominent on our menu in our restaurants, the level of choice, so folks make an important decision on what they want to eat and when they want to eat it.”

Freshness and the 5 a Day attributes of fruits and vegetables enhance their value at a company like McDonald’s, Alvarez noted.

The sheer size of McDonald’s enables the company to bring in produce suppliers that can invest in programs that will meet the company’s standards, Alvarez said.

“I’ve been to a lot of our plants, and because of our size and scale, we can invest and our suppliers can invest in having the best state-of-the-art equipment,” he said. “When that lettuce comes in, you use the outer leaves in one area, the inner leaves in another and deliver it so you deliver a fresh product as safe as possible.”