Consumers are demanding more from products today—especially food products.

Among the things they expect, is for food companies to be more responsible, whether that applies to food safety, the environment, animal treatment or nutrition. Okay, you could argue that activists are driving these issues, and you’d be correct to a point, but it does run much deeper. Consumers have more options than ever, which means the competition is more intense.

Intense competition drives companies’ decisions and actions on such things as social-responsibility issues.

McDonald’s is one company that’s stepping up with a plan. Still the world’s No. 1 fast-food provider, it has faced some market erosion in recent years. You can bet that McDonald’s is a company that keeps consumer trends, desires and reactions under a microscope.

“Consumers are asking, ‘What does all-beef mean? Where does the cheese come from?’ It takes an industry to serve a quality meal every time. One of the ways to do this is through total transparency,” says J.C. Gonzalez-Mendez, McDonald’s vice president of U.S. supply-chain management.

In its own transparency-driven move, McDonald’s held its first Quality Symposium at its Chicagoland headquarters this fall. It focused on the topics of food production and distribution, the role that socially responsible practices have in quality food and how the supply chain anticipates changing consumer needs.

McDonald’s officials also talked about how the raw products are raised, the standards that they expect from suppliers and the auditing process that keeps suppliers at the table.

It’s worth noting that McDonald’s has not always been the most transparent company, especially to trade publications. So, this does appear to be a philosophical, or at least a public relations, shift.

The company also has rolled out a virtual “open-doors” tour on its Web site www.mcdonalds.com/usa/eat/farmtotable.html. There, consumers can learn how food products move from farm to table.

In another move, McDonald’s is literally putting nutrition information into consumers’ hands. Labels on every McDonald’s food product will include calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates and sodium levels as a percentage of USDA’s recommended daily allowance. Each label will have the actual amounts, bar charts and icons to ease consumers’ understanding.

What’s more, consumers will be able to go to the McDonald’s Web site and actively profile what they’ve eaten and what they still have “room” to consume in any given day. Of course, it’s unlikely that consumers will dash off to their computers to figure this stuff out. A new Parade magazine survey shows that 60 percent admit they don’t even give USDA’s Food Pyramid a second thought. The fast-food leader had already provided nutrition information on its tray liners and Web site.

A read-between-the-lines reason for this latest action is to head off obesity and health accusations that activists, and documentaries like “Super Size Me,” have made against McDonald’s.

The goal is to have the labeling program in 20,000 McDonald’s outlets by the end of 2006. The company will roll out the program at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

All this comes despite a piece of legislation designed to protect food companies and restaurants from obesity-related lawsuits. The bill, known as the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, has passed the U.S. House easily (306 to 120.) Rep. Ric Keller   (R-Fla.) sponsored the bill as a response to lawsuits filed against fast-food chains whose customers blame their obesity or weight gain on “fatty and unhealthful foods” served at  the restaurants.

McDonald’s is challenging other fast-food companies to follow its lead not just in nutritional labeling, but in other areas. Because it’s “and industry issue,” notes Gonzalez-Mendez. That industry includes you. 

So, if it looks increasingly like you will have to do things that don’t always make sense or don’t always have a payoff, you’re right. If McDonald’s is challenging its competition to be proactive and transparent on a variety of issues, those challenges will trickle down to you.

The writing is on the wall.