- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Not-so-healthy foods are making a comeback at several fast-food chains and food companies, a detour from the food industry’s recent attempts to counter the nation’s rising obesity rates with more nutritious fare.

As some food companies cut back on sugar and trans fat in their products, others are promoting fattier options, such as Hardee’s Monster Thickburger and higher-fat pork products under development at Smithfield Foods Inc.

The new Monster Thickburger, packing 1,420 calories, brought in hefty revenue for Hardee’s December sales period, said Brad Haley, marketing executive vice president for CKE Restaurants Inc., the Carpinteria, Calif., owner of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. burger chains.

Same-store sales rose 5.8 percent last month compared with the similar period in 2003, Mr. Haley said, declining to give sales numbers on individual items.

“The reaction in the media has been very interesting since we’ve been very unapologetic about this item,” Mr. Haley said, referring to articles that have focused on the burger’s high fat, calories and minimal nutritional value.

With fries and a drink, the combo has about as many calories as the 2,000 recommended per day.

But public feedback largely has been supportive, he said.

Hardee’s still has healthier options, such as its new, low-fat BBQ chicken sandwich, which has about one-fourth the calories of the monster burger. “But our focus will always be big, delicious burgers,” Mr. Haley said.

Even as McDonald’s reformulated Chicken McNuggets and salads were bringing sales, the burger chain reported that McGriddles breakfast sandwiches, with 450 to 560 calories each, also contributed to the company’s strong sales increase for the six months ended June 30. The company did not mention specific menu items in its most recent quarterly results.

One analyst said the popularity of these foods likely will remain constant despite the heightened awareness of obesity and fad diets such as Atkins and South Beach.

“I think Americans want to eat what they eat without the ‘food police’ saying what’s good or bad for them,” said Dean Haskell, senior restaurant analyst for San Francisco investment bank JMP Securities LLC.

Smithfield Foods of Smithfield, Va., is developing a higher-fat pork product. The company is test-marketing the pork for consumers following a low-carb diet, said company spokesman Jerry Hostetter.

“We found this kind of pork does have a better taste,” he said, adding that Smithfield has not decided whether the product will hit grocery shelves nationwide.

Some food companies and restaurants have scaled back on serving sizes and offered healthy alternatives to avoid lawsuits. But that does not mean companies selling fatty foods are more vulnerable to litigation, said Patrick Long, vice president of the Voice of the Defense Bar, a Chicago trade association for defense trial lawyers.

“It’s difficult to say. If one company does not offer healthy food, certainly others do. And people do still have the responsibility for what they eat,” said Mr. Long, who works with Santa Ana, Calif., law firm Williamson, Long & Delis.

After a disappointing financial quarter, Ruby Tuesday Inc. also is returning to its larger portion sizes after cutting them last year.

The Maryville, Tenn., company, with 700 restaurants, said earlier this month that it would reverse “menu portion decisions, which were a mistake.”

The chain shrank portion sizes for some of the entrees, said company spokesman Perrin Anderson. He would not say how much smaller the servings were or what items were affected.

“There weren’t drastic changes, but we did have some customers saying they wanted more standard sizes,” he said.

Ruby Tuesday, which offers a nutritional labeling guide for menu items, said profits for its fiscal second quarter ended Nov. 30 fell 31 percent to $15.1 million (23 cents per share) from $22 million (34 cents) last year. Sales climbed 5 percent to $258 million from $245 million a year ago.

“It’s not a good idea to offer smaller sizes, because the typical customer views quantity as part of a value equation,” Mr. Haskell said. “And consumers are always raising expectations for what they want in quantity, quality, service and price from a restaurant.”

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