Hungry visitors at the National Air and Space Museum this spring will pass under the golden arches of a new McDonald's restaurant despite protests from nutrition experts about the chain's fatty and fried foods.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest sent a letter dated Jan. 17 to Smithsonian officials calling their decision “inconsistent with the Smithsonian's educational mission” and contrary to dietary guidelines set by the Surgeon General.
The museum's director,Gen. John R. Dailey,said nutritional requirements were not part of contract negotiations with the fast-food giant last summer.
“We're taking a more business approach to life,” Dailey said.
And business promises to be good.
Smithsonian Business Ventures,the museum's revenue management group,will oversee the 10-year lease agreement that guarantees $16 million to the Smithsonian from McDonald's. The money will help create new exhibits for the museum,which receives about 60 percent of its annual $28 million budget from the government with the rest coming from corporate sponsorships and donations.
In return,McDonald's will gain what could become its busiest location in the United States,thanks to 9 million people that visit the museum's exhibits annually.
The restaurant will seat 1,000 customers in an eating area surrounded by “high-tech” decor with numerous computer screens displaying information about the museum's exhibits. Currently,McDonald's busiest restaurant is an Orlando,Fla.,Walt Disney World location.
The next McDonald’s in a government-funded institution will open this spring for Pentagon employees. The Department of Defense Concessions Committee dropped cafeteria vendor Aramark Corp. in August to replace the building’s cafeteria with a McDonald’s,Subway,Starbucks and other fast-food restaurants.
No additional McDonald’s outlets are planned for Washington tourist or government sites,a spokeswoman for the corporation said.
The only reassurance Dailey offered for nutritionists was the availability of salad and grilled menu selections.
He also explained the eatery will provide more variety than the standard fare of a Big Mac and fries by incorporating Donatos Pizzeria and Boston Market foods in the menu. McDonald's Corp. acquired Donatos in July 1999 and Boston Market in May 2000.
The interest group center's director,Michael F. Jacobson,is leading a protest of 26 scientists and professors who have signed on to dispute the Smithsonian's decision.
“The air and space museum is the most visited museum in the world,it should be a showcase for good nutrition,” Jacobson said. “Turning the food service over to McDonald's demonstrates that they don't care.”
Flight Line,the 13-year-old café that served visitors until it closed for renovations in September,had slow service and was too expensive,said Claire Brown,spokeswoman for Smithsonian.
She said the McDonald's will decrease the price of an average meal for four by 15 percent and will attract more school groups visiting the museum.
“It's child abuse that we're going to be feeding students this kind of diet,” said Walter Willett,a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of center's experts.
What's his advice for finding a healthy meal at McDonald's? “Bring your lunch.”
He emphasized avoiding the unhealthy vegetable oils McDonald's uses for French fries.
The restaurant's opening date has shifted because of minor construction problems,Dailey said. However,once it's completed by May,the location will employ 140 people and will open at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast. The museum will retain its regular hours from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
This is the first McDonald's combining foods from Donatos and Boston Market,said Lisa Howard,spokeswoman for McDonald's Corp.
As of last week,Jacobson said his group had not received a response or an acknowledgment of its complaints or suggestions.
He shouldn't expect one. Daily said he doesn't plan to respond because CSPI has special interests different from the visitors in his museum.
“The dining facility was losing money,” Daily explained. “People were going to McDonald's (after the Smithsonian) anyway so we took a hint.”
Not good enough,Jacobson said.
“Lawrence Small,” the Smithsonian's secretary,“has nothing but dollar signs in his eyes,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson's letter offered other alternatives for improving nutrition for customers including calorie and fat content information posted on menu boards.
McDonald's restaurants provide pamphlets explaining each menu item's nutritional value,Howard said from the fast-food chain's headquarters in Oak Brook,Ill.
Criticism of the Smithsonian's decision comes five months after museum officials signed a contract with McDonald's in August. The controversy adds to a growing number of complaints from interest groups decrying corporate and private sponsorship of exhibits in the National Museum of American History and the National Zoo.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest regularly acts as a watchdog by examining government and corporate consumer policies such as the FDA's “inadequate” testing procedures for foods with undeclared allergens and NBC's decision to allow hard liquor ads on television.