Seeking to counter charges that its food is unhealthy and contributes to obesity, McDonald's Corp. announced Tuesday that it will display nutrition facts on the packaging for most of its menu items next year.
Patrons of the world's largest restaurant company will be able to learn the amount of calories and fat, among other information, in a McDonald's product by looking at the wrapper instead of having to go to its Web site or ask for it at the counter.
The fast-food industry has been under pressure from consumer groups and the government to provide more nutritional information about its food. McDonald's and others had previously made calorie count brochures available, resisting calls to do more.
In announcing the latest push to improve its image on health issues, McDonald's said it demonstrates its commitment to promoting balanced, active lifestyles. CEO Jim Skinner also said the move responds to demand by customers, not consumer groups.
"We've communicated with our customers for more than 30 years now about our food" ingredients, he said in an interview at the McDonald's flagship restaurant in downtown Chicago. "This was a way for us to close that loop and provide them with an easy way to understand the nutrition information in the food that they're eating."
The new packaging will be introduced in McDonald's restaurants in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America starting in the first half of 2006. The Oak Brook, Ill.-based company said it expects to have the packaging available in more than 20,000 of its 30,000-plus restaurants worldwide by the end of the year.
McDonald's has been a magnet for complaints that fast food is unhealthy. It was targeted by the 2003 documentary "Me," which focused on the health risks of an all fast-food diet, and hit with a blaming the company for the obesity of teenage customers, although that suit was dismissed.
The company has long maintained that its food can be part of an active, balanced lifestyle.
The packaging information will consist of icons and bar charts displaying how McDonald's menu items relate to daily recommendations for calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates and sodium.
They will debut at McDonald's restaurants at the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, in February.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group, called the move "a useful step in providing customers more, and more readable, nutrition information." But the Washington-based organization, which has long urged fast-food companies to both provide more information and offer healthier food, was muted in its praise and said McDonald's should provide calorie counts on its menu boards.
"Considering America's obesity epidemic, that calorie information would do more than just about any other measure to help people protect their waistlines," said CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson.
He also said that instead of giving total fat content, McDonald's should have been more specific since its fried foods are high in saturated and trans fats, which increase the risk of heart disease.
But Dr. Louis Sullivan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and a health adviser to McDonald's, said its "creative" approach is "scientifically sound and communicates complex information in a clear and accessible way."
Skinner said putting the data on the menu board would make it too complex and would slow down service.