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McDonald's CEO addresses critics on worker pay, marketing to kids at annual meeting

Protesters walk down Jorie Blvd. in Oak Brook, Wednesday, May 21, 2014 near the McDonald’s Corp. headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. railing about low wages and seeking $15 per hour for the rank and file. The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago’s Fight for 15 said in a statement that restaurant workers have held strikes and protests six times in the last 1 1/2 years challenging the company’s median wage of $8.94. The Wednesday protest is a preview of what the group said it plans for Thursday’s annual stockholder’s meeting. The company closed one of its five buildings in anticipation of the protests.(AP Photo / Daily Herald, Bev Horne)

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Protesters walk down Jorie Blvd. in Oak Brook, Wednesday, May 21, 2014 near the McDonald’s Corp. headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. railing about low wages and seeking $15 per hour for the rank and file. The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago’s Fight for 15 said in a statement that restaurant workers have held strikes and protests six times in the last 1 1/2 years challenging the company’s median wage of $8.94. The Wednesday protest is a preview of what the group said it plans for Thursday’s annual stockholder’s meeting. The company closed one of its five buildings in anticipation of the protests.(AP Photo / Daily Herald, Bev Horne)

OAK BROOK, Ill. - 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 audience in the building that the company has a heritage of providing job opportunities that lead to "real careers."

"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 police say 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. 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 that Ronald McDonald was about letting kids have fun. He noted that his children ate the chain's food and turned out "quite healthy," with his daughter even becoming a track star.

"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 Corp. is a frequent target for critics because of its high profile. The criticism is becoming a more pressing issue for the world's biggest hamburger chain at a time when it is fighting to boost weak sales amid heightened competition.

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.

Still, the issue of worker pay in particular has put McDonald's in an uncomfortable spotlight since late 2012, when protests for a $15 an hour wage began in New York City. Demonstrators were out again Thursday morning before the meeting, chanting, "I want, I want, I want my $15."

Shawn Dalton travelled from Pittsburgh, and 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," said Dalton, 59. "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 influencing a change in corporate practices.

More trivial matters can also come up during the questions-and-comments period as well. 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.

___

AP Business Writer Candice Choi contributed from New York.

Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

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