Fast-food goes on health kick

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America's leading fast-food chains are preparing pre-emptive strikes as quick-service restaurants become the latest targets in the fight against fat.

Fueled by a childhood-obesity epidemic and a recently failed lawsuit blaming McDonald's for making kids overweight, the industry is the subject of at least three pending obesity-prevention bills. One, sponsored by New York Democratic Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, would require fast-food chains to post calorie, fat and sodium content directly on menu boards. Another, sponsored by Rep. Sean Faircloth, D-Maine, but recently tabled, would be the first to require national chain restaurants to put nutritional information on menu boards and packaging. A third bill pending in California would require quick-service chains to provide nutritional information on demand.

Next tobacco?

"The specter of the [McDonald's] lawsuit spooked chains that the restaurant industry can become the next tobacco," said Bob Goldin, exec VP with restaurant consultant Technomic.

Most chains, including Wendy's and Taco Bell, have added interactive nutrition calculators to their Web sites. Yum Brands last month hired a nutrition consultant to work across its five chains. McDonald's Corp. is adding fresh fruit to Happy Meals and created an advisory council on healthy lifestyles. Salads, moreover, have become the latest weapon in the burger wars, with players now advertising new salad lines.

One industry executive said chains are acting before being "forced to advertise nutritional information." He added, "Either way, you end up doing it so your butt is covered."

Major chains already provide nutritional information in stores through pamphlets and signage, but "what's going to kill you is adding labeling on menu boards," said another burger executive. "It's too expensive and complicated." One chain, however, is experimenting with the concept. It has asked one of its agencies to create menu boards with nutritional information like fat content as well as create brochures and in-store merchandising information promoting healthy eating habits. "It's still in the preliminary, what-if stage," said an agency executive working on the project, who asked not to be named.

Blizzard of choices

Last month, the National Restaurant Association distributed a press release dramatizing how menu customization creates a blizzard of choices, thus making mandatory nutritional labeling unworkable and unnecessary. "It's not like you're buying a can of peas or a frozen dinner at grocery store where you have the same amount of food in every container," said Steven C. Anderson, president-CEO of the group. The association now is working with the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services on legislation that promotes personal accountability and fitness.

Neil Stern, partner at consultant McMillan Dolittle, sees the legislation as an extreme sign of the times. "Consumers don't really want to know nutritional information, but a small minority does." He noted the only successful "health" campaign in fast-food history has been Subway Restaurants' Jared effort, but added that most people don't order its low-fat sandwiches. "Subway makes people feel good about what they're eating," Mr. Stern said. "But more or less they're buying a fantasy."

contributing: stephanie thompson

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