Added On: Tuesday, January 08, 2008

New hunger for old favourites gets McDonald’s back in shape

person eating a McDonalds "Big Mac" burger

Britons are embracing the Government’s “five-a-day” message as never before — that’s one cheeseburger, fries, a Coke, ice-cream, and, go on then, a portion of chicken nuggets.

McDonald’s, the US fast-food chain, is selling more burgers than at any time since it arrived in Britain 34 years ago. Despite concerns about bulging waistlines and childhood obesity, there were more than 88 million visits to the “Golden Arches” around the UK last month alone.

The figure is up nearly 10 million on the previous year, or roughly 320,000 more each day — equivalent to the population of Cardiff. Sales in this financial year are growing at close to the fastest rate since the late 1980s.

It marks a big turnaround for McDonald’s, which has struggled to win back the hearts and wallets of customers after negative publicity about fat content in its food. That issue was highlighted in Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me four years ago, which documented his alarming weight gain as he ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 consecutive days.

Steve Easterbrook, the chief executive of McDonald’s UK, told The Times: “The business had stalled. We weren’t reacting to the signals we were getting. This is one of our strongest years for 20 years, and we feel pretty confident about the momentum we have built up.”

In the past four years the McDonald’s menu has changed, with arrivals including porridge, smoothies and chicken wraps. However, traditional products such as burgers, fries and ice-creams remain the most popular choices by far, accounting for about 90 per cent of all sales. More than two million children’s “Happy Meals” were sold each week in November.

The Government has spent large sums on promoting healthier diets and encouraging people to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. However, recent reports have claimed that children’s diets are now so bad that many risk dying a decade younger than their parents.

Colin Waine, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “My reaction is one of despair. There’s been enough publicity about the relentless rise and impact of obesity, but from the figures it seems the public are choosing to ignore them.”

Richard Watts, of Sustain, the food and farming alliance, said: “McDonald’s has been slightly better than other fast-food companies but the majority of their business is still old-fashioned burger and fries. It seems the public’s intentions are better than their actions and underline the fact we need to go further and faster to persuade people to lead a healthy diet.”

McDonald’s said that people were not necessarily eating more burgers than before, but visiting McDonald’s more often than its rivals. The company has cut salt and sugar levels in its food. Trans-fats have been reduced while fruit bags have gone into Happy Meals.

Mr Easterbrook said: “We are in a sector that is incredibly competitive, with more new entrants all the time. I think the range and scale of change in the business is making it difficult for our competitors to keep up.”

He added: “The issue of obesity is complex and absolutely one our society is facing, there’s no denial about that. The Government has a part to play, individuals have a responsibility and so does the food and drink industry. These are the three pillars that need to work together and demonstrate they have a commitment to solving the issue.”

Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef and face of Sainsbury’s, has criticised his sponsor after it failed to take part in a debate on factory farming. The chef, who is paid £1.2 million a year by the supermarket, said he was angry that it did not have the confidence to discuss its farming methods. He told the Daily Mirror: “It is shocking that the people I work for didn’t turn up on the day.”

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