(Oct. 27) OAK BROOK, Ill. — McDonald’s Corp. is making an effort to literally repackage itself.

McDonald’s, as part of its first quality symposium on Oct. 24-25 at its home base, said it plans to print detailed nutrition information about its products on packaging.

By next spring, a consumer who buys a Big Mac meal, including a soft drink, will know that such indulgence comes at a 1,000-calorie price and that a four-piece serving of Chicken McNuggets weighs in at 170 calories.

Skeptics say the move toward more openness with consumers is a response to a barrage of criticism directed at a company that, for years, has been the runaway leader in a restaurant sector that rakes in huge profits on high-fat products amid an obesity epidemic in the U.S.

The question for fresh produce suppliers to the fast-food behemoth is how this change will benefit them.

LARGE PART OF MENU

McDonald’s says produce already has become an important part of its menu and that the presence of fruits and vegetables will only grow.

“The interesting thing about McDonald’s that people don’t realize because they see us as individual restaurants, is that even prior to some of our recent product offerings, we were one of the largest produce purchasers in the country,” said Mike Donahue, vice president of communications, who directed the symposium. “But in the last five years, we believe we’re probably, by brand, the nation’s largest purchaser and seller of produce.”

Donahue pointed out the chain had sold more than 400 million of its premium salads since it launched the line in 2003.

“That’s 800 million servings of salads with 16 different kinds of spring mixes,” he said. “We’re the world’s largest purchaser of apples for Apple Dippers and our Fruit & Walnut Salad that has apples in it.

McDonald’s says that this year it will procure 30 million pounds of tomatoes, 54 million pounds of apples, 6.5 million pounds of grapes, 4.2 million pounds of walnuts and more than 1 billion pounds of potatoes.

Among McDonald’s largest produce suppliers are Taylor Farms and Fresh Express Inc., both based in Salinas, Calif., and Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac Produce Inc.

McDonald’s said it would formally launch its new information-laden packaging in February at the Winter Olympics in Italy. Rollouts in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America will follow before next summer.

By the end of 2006, McDonald’s said, it will have the new packaging in two-thirds of its 31,700 units worldwide.

MORE FRUIT

A wider array of produce on McDonald’s menu seems likely, particularly in fruit, said Wade Thoma, vice president of menu management for the company’s McDonald’s USA division.

“Genetically, we have a predisposition to sweet, and so we have a predisposition to like fruit because it’s sweet. Fruit is one of those things where everyone wants to eat more, but it’s really not very convenient to eat it more. And frankly, I think over the course of time, we’ve tried to make it easier to eat fruit on the go.”

But McDonald’s has expanded its line of produce offerings recently. In May, the company launched its Fruit & Walnut Salads. Apple Dippers — sliced apples and caramel dip — have been around since June 2004.

“It’s really exciting to see what McDonald’s is doing with fresh produce,” said Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, who attended the event.

“I think they’ve taken the right approach that they’re not going to just put it on the menu, that they’re spending enough time and energy to make sure they have a great-tasting product that meets all the consistency standards of the QSR industry. And they’re looking for new opportunities, and that’s why I’m here, to give them moral support.”