McDonalds said Tuesday it would begin offering Americans a slimmed down version of its children's Happy Meals, in a not-too-subtle attempt to silence the fast food giant's many critics in that country.
(GlobalPost reports: McDonald's to sell a leaner Happy Meal)
However, at this stage, the "healthier" Happy Meals — which will include fruit and offer a reduced serve of fries — will only be available in the U.S. — a decision that "will cost Australian children dearly," according to nutritionists Down Under interviewed by the ABC.
A 2010 study indicated that obesity had become the single biggest threat to public health in Australia, with hundreds of thousands of Australians likely to die unnecessarily over the next few years simply for being too fat.
The Western Australia public health department found that obesity had overtaken tobacco as the leading preventable cause of disease in that Australian state, with health experts warning the data would be reflected across the country once carried out by other public health departments.
(GlobalPost reports: Obesity diaries: Welcome to fat Australia)
Happy Meals had also been blamed for contributing to childhood obesity in the U.S. The world's largest hamburger chain has been under pressure from American consumer groups to provide healthier kids' food, with fewer calories, and less sugar and sodium.
The Happy Meal makeover comes as several U.S. cities consider toy bans over concerns about nutritional quality and marketing towards children.
Samantha Graff, director of legal research at the California-based advocacy group Public Health Law and Policy, told the ABC that she was suspicious about the timing of the U.S. announcement.
"[It is] partly a realization that parents don't want a toy as a reward for children to choose unhealthy menu options, particularly again in the middle of this obesity crisis that our nation is facing," she said. "And not to be too cynical, but there has been pressure from multiple points for the fast food industry to reconsider the practices that have been unquestioned and part of our social fabric for as many years as I can count."
The McDonald's announcement was believed to have been influenced by a New York regulation that requires fast food restaurants to display the energy content of their food. Similar regulations are reportedly being planned for the Australian states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
However, McDonald's outlets in Australia will not immediately be taking the same steps as those in the U.S., ABC reports.
Rather, said a spokesman, Ron Christianson: "Over the coming weeks and months we're going to take a look at how the U.S. initiative can integrate into our Australian plans. One of the things I think is important to mention is that since 2007 our Happy Meal options have increased exponentially; so while the U.S. announcement is as I said very exciting, we're going to be taking a look at the overall program very closely over the coming weeks and months and determine what would make the most sense for our market here in Australia."
Happy Meals in Australia are already available with healthier options — including a seared chicken wrap, apple slices, low-fat flavored milk, fruit juice and water.
However, with Australia regularly making lists of the world's fattest countries, public officials may soon be taking the advice of health experts and penalizing corporate America from afar.