(Nov. 15, NATIONAL EDITOR’S COLUMN) The dollar menu at McDonald’s needs help, and now is the just the time for fresh produce to save the day.

I read a report the other day that some franchisees of McDonald’s were moaning about the profitability of the “dollar menu.”

In particular, some said the popular double cheeseburger was “loss leader” and they questioned why the dollar menu endures despite rising ingredient prices.

A Nov. 6 report from the Dow Jones News Service noted that some restaurants have taken the double cheese off the dollar menu and are charging more for it. Other stores have forsaken the dollar menu board and eliminated that irritating, penny-pinching customer like me who orders a water and two $1 double cheeseburgers.

In the Dow Jones story, Don Armstrong, the head of McDonald’s National Leadership Council of franchisees, reportedly said in an e-mail to colleagues that it is hard to replace the appeal of the double cheeseburger.

“We hate the fact that the dollar menu/double cheeseburger is the foundation of that (value) position,” wrote Armstrong. “But the fact is it works and everything else that has been tried has failed.”

Not so fast, my friend.

Why not add more produce options on the value menu? Why not promote produce as a loss leader for a while? McDonald’s has done its part to make artery-clogging burgers cheap. Now it is time to promote fresh and healthy.

Yes, we have the meager side salad and apple dippers, but how about whole and sliced fruit options? How about a baked potato? Or highlight an organic apple or orange? What about sliced mango or cut pineapple?

The double cheeseburger has an iron grip on the drive-through public, but a little creative marketing of fresh produce on the dollar menu may be the answer.

The new food protection plan from the Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov) is worth taking more than a casual look at.

One of the observations it makes is that the U.S. population is becoming more “at risk” to foodborne illness because of its age.

In 2007, the FDA said at least 20% of the population is in a high-risk category (young, older, pregnant, immune-compromised), compared with 15% in 1980. By 2025, 25% of the population will be at high risk of contracting a serious foodborne illness and possibly dying from it.

Those statistics are sobering. When one of five consumers is in a high-risk category, it is a reminder of just how vigilant the produce industry and FDA must be to protect that population (and market share, by the way).

If foodborne illness outbreaks were to continue to hit the very young and very old, it wouldn’t be beyond the pale for the FDA to advise the high-risk population to avoid at least some produce items altogether.

Another intriguing point in the report is the FDA’s call for Congress to allow the agency to accredit third parties to handle some inspection duties. The demand for inspection is growing too fast for the agency to respond to, agency officials admit.

But how will the FDA manage those third-party inspectors?

The inspectors could be federal, state, local or foreign government agencies or private entities that don’t have conflicts of interest, the FDA said.

The FDA plan says the agency also would do the following:

  • “Audit the work of these organizations to ensure that FDA requirements were consistently assessed;

  • “Review their inspection reports; and

  • “Provide ongoing training criteria to ensure they maintain their skills and knowledge, especially as technology and requirements change over time.

“FDA would use information from these accredited third-party organizations in its decision making but not be bound by such information in determining compliance with FDA requirements.

“Use of accredited third parties would be voluntary and might offer more in-depth review and possibly faster review times and expedited entry for imported goods manufactured in facilities inspected by accredited third parties. Use of accredited third parties may also be taken into consideration by the FDA when setting inspection and surveillance priorities.”

Third-party inspection help may be appropriate for the workload, but I wonder how the FDA will maintain uniform standards and commit the resources necessary to manage what will be a sprawling worldwide collection of third-party inspectors.

The fiscal year 2007 report from U.S. Customs and Border Protection reveals that greater enforcement has resulted in a reduction of apprehensions at key border points. CBP reported a 20% decline overall, with the Yuma sector down a whopping 68%. That has implications for agricultural labor, no doubt.

Amid all the talk about shifting border inspections back to USDA, how is the CBP addressing the shortfall in ag inspectors?

The agency says it hired 340 agriculture specialists in fiscal year 2007, for a net increase of 151 specialists. Not bad for a year’s work, but it won’t deter the wish by many produce associations to move phytosanitary border inspections back to USDA.