FAST-FOOD CHAINS' ADS CHUCK U.K. BEEF ITEMS

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[london] U.K. fast-food chains rushed out ads last week saying they were chopping hamburgers from their menus until beef could be imported in response to the "mad cow disease" crisis.

McDonald's Restaurants set the pace with page newspaper ads by Leo Burnett Co., explaining the removal of beef from its 660 U.K. restaurants due to loss of consumer confidence and noting the scheduled March 28 return of the Big Mac, made with foreign beef.

U.K. hamburger chain Wimpy International followed, plastering posters with the headline "Wimpy moves to non-British beef" on its 271 restaurants' walls, windows and main entrances. The posters, created in-house, extolled the mouth-watering taste of non-red-meat items like Fishy Nibbles and Beanburgers.

CUSTOMERS SWITCH

"It started when customers voted with their feet," said Kath Young, Wimpy's marketing manager. Last week, half of Wimpy's red meat customers switched to non-beef and poultry items.

Wimpy and ad agency Publicis are likely to follow up with leaflets reassuring customers of Wimpy's quality, Ms. Young said.

Wimpy also had to drop hamburgers quickly from an Easter holiday TV campaign running jointly with Ferrero Confectionery's Kinder Surprise brand. The spot, which broke March 27 on national TV station GMTV, now highlights Wimpy's Fishy Nibbles and Chicken Dippers.

Britain, where the incidence of mad cow disease-an incurable and fatal brain disorder suffered by cattle-is particularly high, has lost confidence in domestic beef. This follows the U.K. government's recent admission that humans could possibly contract the disease, and the European Commission's proposed international ban on British beef.

`LOSS OF CONFIDENCE'

Paul Preston, McDonald's U.K. president-CEO, said in the company's ad: "We believe that British beef is safe. However, we cannot ignore the fact that recent announcements have led to a growing loss of consumer confidence in British beef, which has not been restored."

Beef supplies will now come mainly from France, the Netherlands and Ireland.

Burger King Corp. opted to keep selling U.K. beef until it could be replaced with imports on March 30, but plans no ads.

A spokesman for chicken chain KFC Corp. said sales are up "by about 30% to 40%" at its 363 U.K. outlets. "We're seeing a larger number of young mothers and teen-agers in the stores," he said.

McDonald's is particularly sensitive because of a U.K. libel case in which the U.S. fast-food giant is suing two environmentalists for distributing leaflets saying McDonald's food is unhealthy.

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