The responsible way to promote fast food

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 April, 2005, 12:00am

Super Size Me has gone from being a cult documentary to a media phenomenon, complete with a forthcoming television series and book. Around the world, fast-food restaurant customers are demanding healthier menus, while a few are starting to sue restaurants for making them fat.

It is no wonder that chains such as McDonald's are on their guard these days. Here, and elsewhere, McDonald's has launched campaigns to promote more active lifestyles and begun introducing salads and fresh fruit to their menus.

These innovations have been slow to come to Hong Kong, but it is the way of the future. Heading off criticism about the high fat and sugar content of their food is surely one motivation. Closing off avenues for future legal claims might be another. Because more options mean more healthy food choices, the sooner these changes are introduced in fast-food-loving Hong Kong the better.

The global effort to remake the McDonald's image comes at a time when parents and teachers in Hong Kong have banded together to protest at the delivery of McDonald's lunches to schools. If action is taken against McDonald's, something will also have to be done about KFC, Pizza Hut and the subcontractors who provide boxed lunches to the schools.

Vetting the nutritional content of the food that students have access to at lunchtime might become complicated very quickly. Any such effort should treat all suppliers fairly and be based on clear ideas about how nutritional goals can be set and achieved.

A range of lifestyle factors, from the variety of foods in the diet to how active a person is, are all considerations in overall health. Compared to a decade or two ago, modern life is more sedentary, while the market offers an endless variety of high-sodium, high-fat, unhealthy snack options.

Problems such as increased childhood obesity cannot be laid at the feet of the fast-food chains alone. Cutting off access to these foods at lunchtime might have limited effect without a parallel effort to educate children about the need for balanced diets and exercise.

McDonald's and other restaurants can hardly be blamed for going after the youth market. But in doing so they must act responsibly.

That is why it is heartening to see that the company has altered its plan to go ahead with a Hong Kong campaign that may have encouraged children to eat at McDonald's every day for a month to collect a set of wristbands. Rewarding youngsters for eating at the restaurant every day would undermine any message about moderation.

It is also not advisable in an age when Super Size Me is a global phenomenon and obese, inactive children are an emerging public concern. The company might well be applauded for seeing the light.