CHICAGO -- Coming soon to a McDonald's near you: Adult Happy Meals, featuring salad, bottled water, pedometer and a little bit of advice: Walk more.
The hamburger giant outlined plans Thursday to introduce the "Go Active!" meals for grown-ups at all 13,500 of its U.S. restaurants May 6 along with other steps designed to make its fare - and its image - more healthy.
A target of obesity lawsuits and a magnet for criticism that fast food is unhealthy, McDonald's Corp. also launched a marketing blitz to address health issues head-on and tout new diet-conscious options at its outlets.
As part of the campaign, the company said that in June it will roll out healthier choices in its Happy Meals for kids nationwide, such as the option to substitute apple slices and juice for fries and a soft drink.
It also will distribute brochures telling customers how to modify their McDonald's orders for lower fat, calories and carbohydrates, such as by skipping the cheese or bun. The promotion has been employed at its New York-region restaurants since January.
Also new will be lowfat salad dressing, a fourth variety of salad, and nutrition information on Happy Meal packages starting in test markets. The company said the steps come in response to a call by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this year for the private sector to help fight obesity.
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson lauded McDonald's for promoting balanced eating and exercise and committing to "taking a lead role by helping educate its customers on this seriously important health issue."
The announcement and a presentation by McDonald's executives at the National Press Club in Washington signaled the company's biggest public-relations push yet on obesity and diet concerns that are forcing sweeping changes in the U.S. food and restaurant industries.
The fast food industry has been under pressure from consumer groups and the government to give more nutritional information and promote healthier eating. McDonald's introduced entree salads in the United States about a year ago, as did competitors, and has been moving to add some healthier options to its restaurants worldwide.
Blaming McDonald's for Americans' rising obesity and physical inactivity is "not reflective of reality," Mike Roberts, president of the company's U.S. operations, said in an interview.
"But it's part of what we're dealing with as a country right now, and we've got to lead" by providing lots of choices and educating consumers about them, he said. "We're very concerned about our customers' well-being."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, credited McDonald's with taking "some small steps in the right direction" Thursday but said they don't go nearly far enough.
"If McDonald's wanted to improve the public's health, in addition to providing the salads and bottled water, it could stop using partially hydrogenated oils in its fries, which contain trans fats and are a powerful promoter of heart disease," he said. "They also could lower the fat content of their burgers, use lowfat cheese, provide more baked food instead of fried food and lower the sodium content of their foods."
McDonald's promised two years ago to adopt a healthier cooking oil for its fries but Roberts said testing has yet to produce an appropriate replacement.
The Oak Brook, Ill.-based company signed up fitness whiz Bob Greene to showcase its healthy-lifestyle campaign. Greene's tips promoting walking will be included in a pamphlet with adult Happy Meals, and he embarks Tuesday on a 38-day walking and biking tour from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
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