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McDonald's Drops Super Stuff

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Supersizing at McDonald's didn't die from lack of interest. It died from, well, supersized interest.

Late Tuesday, McDonald's announced it was eliminating its lucrative Super Size french fry and soft drink option by the end of the year. Industry executives say supersizing became too costly for the most critical of reasons -- it was damaging McDonald's image because of:

* Too much interest from consumers. One in 10 request the extra-calorie-laden upgrade. The very name became a pop-culture term for any and all things sized XXL.

* Too much interest from outspoken nutritionists and doctors. It became a lightning rod for America's obesity concerns.

* Too much interest from advocacy groups and lawyers. It was being targeted as the fast-food world's near-equivalent of nicotine.

* Too much interest from filmmakers. A comic documentary to open in May, Super Size Me, is about a guy whose health deteriorates as he gains 24 pounds while eating all of his meals at McDonald's for an entire month.

* Too much interest from the media. They've published reams of articles about the ill effects of overeating by the nation's youth.

''The target was right on (McDonald's) chest,'' says Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a restaurant consulting firm. ''Now, there's one less argument that the other side can use against McDonald's. The company has just put itself ahead of the curve.''

Even some longtime critics of McDonald's are giving begrudging approval to the move.

John Banzhaf III, the George Washington University law professor who has played a key role in consumer lawsuits against McDonald's, calls it ''a small step in the right direction.''

More impressed is Morgan Spurlock, the 33-year-old New York resident who produced and stars in the upcoming documentary Super Size Me. ''I applaud McDonald's -- this is a tremendous achievement,'' Spurlock says. He believes that McDonald's fear of public humiliation from his film was a key motivation.

McDonald's officials scoff at that. And they are downplaying the action. It was part of a ''menu simplification'' process, says Walt Riker, a McDonald's spokesman. But, he adds, ''It certainly is consistent with and on a parallel path with our ongoing commitment to a balanced lifestyle.''

Welcome to the brave new world of fast food. Following Wendy's lead, McDonald's added entrée salads -- which have been a huge hit. It changed the content of its Chicken McNuggets from various chicken parts to all white meat. And it's in the process of adding Happy Meal options to include vegetables and juice in place of fries and soft drinks.

Officials at Wendy's and Burger King say they have no immediate plans to change their extra-large meals. But industry executives say they'll almost have to follow McDonald's lead.

''They don't want to be seen as less responsive,'' Paul says.

Banzhaf says the effect could spread well beyond fast food.

By seeing a reduction in the size of fast-food meals, many consumers may ultimately reduce the size of the meals they eat at home. ''People got used to 7 oz. fries being normal,'' Banzhaf says.

Spurlock, whose film is almost certain to get a PR boost from McDonald's latest action, can hardly contain his glee. ''Is this incredible?'' he asks. ''Or what?''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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