ATLANTA - Troubled hamburger giant McDonald's is getting ready to serve up a novel order: healthy food for kids.
The company is considering adding sliced apples and perhaps other fruits, vegetables and low-fat yogurt as options in children's Happy Meals. It also rolled out a new line of premium salads this month and is testing an all-white-meat chicken nugget.
The changes come at a crucial period for McDonald's, which recently posted its first-ever quarterly loss. Fast-casual chains have been nibbling away at its customer base.
A $1 discount menu has put McDonald's into a bruising price war with Burger King. Several lawsuits contend that the restaurant chain has contributed to the obesity of children. And a high-profile effort to reduce the amount of artery-clogging trans-fatty acids in the oil used for its french fries has stalled while researchers look for a tastier version.
"We want people to feel good about what McDonald's does," said Ken Barun, the vice president who is leading the company's healthy-lifestyle initiative.
To that end, McDonald's is pulling together an advisory council on nutrition and healthy lifestyles, has revamped its nutritional information brochures and Web site and is encouraging an educational and public service campaign in individual markets. Barun said McDonald's wants to educate consumers about what a balanced meal is and what they should eat in moderation. The chain offers sliced fruit in its British stores and low-fat yogurt in France.
"I can't imagine it's going to hurt," said Bob Golden, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago restaurant consulting firm. "Is it going to drive people into the restaurants? I don't know about that, but I think it's a step in the right direction."
Patricia McIver and Melita Kelly, eating fast-food lunches in downtown Atlanta, said they might be more likely to visit McDonald's if fresh fruits and vegetables were available.
Kelly, who once ate there daily, cut back to twice a month when she started dieting. On this day, she was eating KFC honey barbecue chicken wings and potato wedges.
McIver trimmed her McDonald's visits to several per month when she quit eating beef. "That makes you give up a lot of fast food," said McIver, who was eating tuna salad from Subway.
McDonald's and other hamburger giants such as Burger King have been losing customers steadily to fast-growing, quick-service sandwich chains such as Subway and Panera Bread. Those chains are producing much of the growth in the industry, while the burger chains have stalled. McDonald's, which shuffled top executives this year, plans to close 517 restaurants by 2004.
Yet McDonald's, which serves 46 million customers a day, isn't backing away from burgers. It reportedly is trying to sell its controlling interest in Boston Market, Chipotle Grill and Donatos Pizzeria to concentrate on its core business. That means hamburgers and fries, as well as some of the newer offerings aimed at wooing back lost customers.
McDonald's has experimented with healthier menu offerings before, with mixed success. The McLean Deluxe, a lower-fat hamburger, flopped. Some McDonald's franchises offer veggies burgers, but they're not available nationally as they are at Burger King.
Company official Barun said the McLean Deluxe, which replaced fat with a seaweed-derived filler, was ahead of its time. Nutritionists have praised the company's Fruit `n Yogurt Parfait as a step in the right direction.
Now that nearly 65 percent of American adults are considered overweight, the timing seems better. A number of public health agencies have launched campaigns to persuade Americans to pare their growing waistlines to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The World Health Organization, concerned about rising rates of obesity in developing as well as industrialized countries, is trying to enroll major food manufacturers and restaurant chains, including McDonald's, in its efforts to change the situation. It plans a summit meeting May 9 with leaders of those companies in Geneva.
"Consumer pressure is leading companies to know that people want alternatives," said Derek Yach, executive director of WHO's noncommunicable diseases and mental health division.
WHO is also urging McDonald's to reduce levels of saturated fat, sodium and sugar in its other products.
So far, that much change isn't on the menu.
"We're offering healthy alternatives to people," Barun said. "We're not becoming this healthy, health-food restaurant."