Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Few people will buy so-called "healthy" food

The salad days are over at McDonald's. The fast-food chain's British outlets are to undergo a "back to burgers" relaunch after years of trying to promote sales of pasta, fresh fruit and salads, under pressure to encourage healthy eating. McDonald's is introducing a giant burger - 40% bigger than a Big Mac - to be launched in time for purchase by television viewers during next month's World Cup. The "Bigger Big Mac" will be followed by more new products over the summer, which the company says will give "a twist on existing burgers".

McDonald's unveiled the healthier options three years ago in response to accusations that its high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar products were fuelling children's junk-food consumption and leading to obesity. Now, however, Steve Easterbrook, the new president of McDonald's UK, has admitted that only a small minority of customers have chosen the healthier items. The initiative attracted unwelcome publicity when it emerged that dressings and croutons on a chicken salad gave it a higher concentration of fat than a Big Mac.

Easterbrook, 38, defended the original decision to bring in healthier menus but admitted that they accounted for less than 10% of the company's sales, which have been flat in Britain since 2002. "We are a burger business," said Easterbrook. "Our traditional menu - hamburger, cheeseburger, Big Mac, quarterpounder, chicken sandwich - is front and centre of our plans. The emphasis has changed." Easterbrook is following the lead set by McDonald's in America, where fast food chains have prospered by concentrating on traditional fare. McDonald's new promotions of cheap burgers there have contributed to a 30% growth in revenue in the past two years. Also in America, Burger King, McDonald's smaller rival, has introduced products such as the 730-calorie "omelet sandwich", with 47g of fat.

Easterbrook's move will undermine attempts by the government to improve children's diets. Last Friday, Alan Johnson, the education secretary, announced that from September, school meals will be required to meet minimum nutritional standards for fat, salt and sugar content, and will no longer be able to use "re-formed" meat products.

The return by McDonald's to the "bad old ways" suggests that the self-congratulation of some campaigners may be premature. This weekend, Eric Schlosser, whose book Fast Food Nation marked the start of a backlash against burger chains when it was published five years ago, was celebrating the premiere at the Cannes film festival of a movie on his campaign to expose unethical practices in the burger industry. A spokesman for Schlosser maintained that the healthy eating message was still making headway. "We are so glad people are beginning to understand their health is at stake if they eat these things," he said.

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