McDonald's profits drop and Mars abandons king size bars

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 07 October 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:820
  1. Rebecca Coombes
  1. London

    The profits of McDonald's UK arm have slumped to the lowest level in the fast food giant's 30 year history after a stream of bad publicity about the ill effects to health of eating junk food.

    The chain's pretax profits fell by nearly three quarters in the United Kingdom last year, to £23.6m ($42.1m; €34.3m), it emerged last week.

    The figures—which also show that sales have dropped—follow claims that the high fat and salt content of food from McDonald's have contributed to the United Kingdom's rising incidence of obesity in children.

    The film Super Size Me—a documentary currently on release in the United Kingdom—shows filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eating nothing but meals from McDonald's for 30 days. He put on weight and became ill. In one scene his doctor tells him to stop the diet after tests show liver abnormalities.

    The filmmaker got the idea after two overweight schoolgirls in New York tried to sue the hamburger chain but failed when they could not prove that eating at McDonald's was injurious to their health.

    Embedded Image

    Health problems developed by Morgan Spurlock (above) on his McDonald's diet are thought to have affected the company's profits

    Credit: IMAGENET

    The firm has tried to reverse the bad publicity by introducing options such as salads and organic milk and has even reduced the salt in its tomato sauce. Its Every Step Counts campaign gave away a free “stepometer” with every salad purchased. The company will also phase out “supersizing”—upgrading your meal to include nearly 200 grams of French fries and 1.25 litres of soft drink—by next year.

    But public health experts said that the drop in profits could be a sign that Britons were turning away from fast food. In the same week, Cadbury and Masterfoods, makers of Mars and Snickers, announced that they were to downsize “king size” chocolate bars from next year. Nestlé will not follow suit.

    Rod Griffiths, president of the Faculty of Public Health at the Royal College of Physicians, said, “It's a step in the right direction.

    We can see the signs that the food industry is beginning to get the public health message. We are seeing fresh fruit on sale in places it didn't used to be. If that is because of commercial pressure, then so be it.”

    But more needed to be done, said Professor Griffiths. One of McDonald's salads, he said, was topped by calorie rich fried chicken. “If you go on Virgin or Great Western trains you're given fruit for free in first class. But in standard class you can't even buy it from the buffet. It should be available to everyone,” he added.

    Meanwhile in the United States, a report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has called for urgent action on childhood obesity. The report—from a committee of experts in child and public health—was made after Congress requested an obesity prevention plan based on “sound science.” One of its recommended steps is for schools to implement nutritional standards for all food and beverages on school grounds, including those in vending machines.


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