Oak Brook-based McDonald's CEO Don Thompson sought to address a growing chorus of critics on issues including worker pay and marketing to children at its annual meeting Thursday.
As hundreds of protesters chanted for higher wages outside, Thompson told the crowd gathered inside the event that the company has a heritage of providing job opportunities that lead to "real careers."
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"We believe we pay fair and competitive wages," Thompson said.
A day earlier, McDonald's closed one of its buildings in Oak Brook, Illinois, where protesters had planned to demonstrate over the low wages paid to its workers. Organizers then targeted another site on the company's headquarters in suburban Chicago, and more than 138 were arrested for refusing to leave the property.
As in years past, McDonald's marketing to tactics to children was also brought up by speakers at the shareholder meeting. One mother from Lexington, Kentucky, Casey Hinds, said Ronald McDonald was "the Joe Camel of fast food."
Thompson said McDonald's wasn't predatory and noted that his children ate the chain's food and turned out "quite healthy."
"We are people. We do have values at McDonald's. We are parents," he said.
Although many fast-food chains engage in similar practices, McDonald's is a frequent target for critics because of its high profile. The criticism is becoming a bigger issue for the company at a time when it is fighting to boost weak sales amid heightened competition and changing eating habits.
Part of the problem is that people are shifting toward foods they feel are fresher or healthier, which has prompted McDonald's executives in recent months to repeatedly underscore the quality of the chain's ingredients.
Thompson struck on those notes again Thursday, saying the company cracks eggs and uses fresh vegetables to make its food.
But the issue of worker pay in particular has put the company in an uncomfortable spotlight since late 2012, when protests began in New York City. They were out again on Thursday morning before the annual meeting, chanting, "I want, I want, I want my $15."
Shawn Dalton traveled from Pittsburgh, saying she wanted to support minimum-wage workers. Dalton, 59, said her daughter is a recent high school graduate who can't afford to go to college right away, so she'll likely wind up earning Pennsylvania's $7.25-an-hour minimum wage.
"That won't get her an apartment, that won't buy a bus pass, that won't buy food," she said. "She'll either have to depend on welfare or depend on me."
Shareholder meetings offer a rare opportunity for average investors to face top executives at publicly traded companies. Public pension funds and activist groups often show up in hopes of changing corporate practices.
The questions and comments often touch on a wide range of issues, however. On Thursday, for instance, one speaker asked Thompson why McDonald's didn't serve biscuits and gravy for breakfast in all its markets.
An executive noted that tastes and demand varies by region.