Thursday, April 15, 2004

McDonald’s Corp. is telling consumers to hold the fries and take more walks as part of a public health campaign announced yesterday to combat obesity and avoid lawsuits from overweight consumers.

The Oakbrook, Ill., hamburger chain, which has been a prime target for health advocates touting the evils of fast food and obesity-related lawsuits, said this summer it will add lighter choices on its menus and put more nutritional information in its 13,500 U.S. stores.

At a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, corporate executives said they will start selling an Adult Happy Meal, which the company tested in more than 150 Indiana stores last year, nationwide May 6.

The adult version of the popular children’s Happy Meal, part of McDonald’s “Go Active” meals, comes with a salad, bottled water, pedometer and pamphlet that gives customers walking tips. The meal will start selling for a limited time, with a recommended price of $4.99.

The company also is rolling out more menu items in June for children’s Happy Meals, which include apple slices that come with low-fat caramel dipping sauce, apple juice and 1 percent white and chocolate milk.

Stores also will offer a new low-fat salad dressing, a fourth variety of its salad and low-carbohydrate styles for sandwiches that have been available for the past three months in the New York area.

McDonald’s newest health campaign follows a series of changes the company has made in the past two years amid lawsuits accusing the company of causing the weight gain of several New York residents.

Those lawsuits were dismissed but McDonald’s rolled out a line of healthier alternatives including yogurt parfaits and leaner Chicken McNuggets.

A recent announcement that McDonald’s would get rid of its supersize servings is part of a larger plan to change the national menu by the end of the year, said Michael Roberts, president of McDonald’s USA.

Mr. Roberts also promised the company would test nutritional information on Happy Meal packaging in select markets sometime this year.

He said the company’s public health ad blitz and menu initiatives answer the call by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to be more active in addressing the nation’s rising obesity rates.

Mr. Thompson has challenged food manufacturers and fast-food chains for the past two years to shoulder some of the responsibility for the obesity epidemic and provide useful information for consumers.

At the press conference, Mr. Thompson quickly surveyed several displays McDonald’s had set up before saying the company has taken a “step in the right direction.”

“And I’ll be honest, at first I met some resistance. But today’s good news demonstrates that our message is resonating in boardrooms throughout the food industry,” he said.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington health advocacy group often dubbed the “food police” by critics, said the campaign does not go far enough.

“The company’s small steps seem more designed to forestall the big steps that government should be taking to prevent obesity and heart disease,” said CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson.

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