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Fast food chains drop watchdog's calorie-count display scheme

Fast food chains and restaurants have quietly sunk a plan by Britain's food watchdog to display calorie counts in eating outlets across the country, The Independent can disclose.

With increasing numbers of Britons eating meals outside of the home – most often in cafés, sandwich stores and fast food outlets – the Food Standards Agency had set up a trial with many of the largest fast food and restaurant companies, in which they printed calorie counts next to products on the shelves, on menus or next to tills.

But chains such as KFC and Burger King have failed to commit to extending the trials. Others, such as Pizza Hut, Mitchells and Butlers, which runs the Harvester chain, and the caterer Compass have abandoned theirs. Only one major company of 18 firms that tested the idea, Pret A Manger, now displays calories next to all its products.

Despite growing waistlines and the annual cost of billions of pounds to the NHS in treating obesity and other diet-related illness, diners usually have to search out calorie information.

Most chains only list nutritional information such as calories and fat and sugar content on their websites rather than prominently in their stores. Some, such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee, do offer an in-store leaflet – if customers request the information.

But many are unaware of how quickly calories can add up, with one Pizza Hut pizza weighing in at 2,656 calories – the daily allowance of 2,500 for a man – a large Burger King milkshake having 612 calories and a Starbucks carrot cake 560 calories, a quarter of a woman's recommended daily intake of 2,000.

The news means that calorie counts are only being listed next to food in the way the FSA intended in about 200 outlets, or 3 per cent of the 6,000 major fast food and sandwich shops run by leading names such as McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks. Food campaigners expressed disappointment that the project looked doomed to fail. "It's deeply disappointing," said Jackie Schneider, a spokeswoman for Sustain, a food and farming group which runs the Children's Food Campaign.

"Providing a calorie count is a simple way to pass on information to people to make decisions. With [the Health Secretary] Andrew Lansley's comments about people taking personal responsibility, it's imperative that companies give calorie information."

Last summer the Food Standards Agency announced plans to trial the display of calories in dozens of outlets across 18 fast food chains, restaurant companies, cafés and workplace caterers. The companies taking part included Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, Subway, Wimpy, Compass, Mitchells and Butlers and Merlin Entertainments.

The FSA says now that only five firms have agreed to give a "forward, long-term commitment" to display calories in outlets: Pret A Manger, Wimpy, Co-operative cafés, the Camden Food Company and the Real Greek, which has six restaurants in London.

Pizza Hut abandoned a trial in Birmingham and Coventry, saying that customers had found the calorie labelling "confusing". KFC is still trialling the scheme at two of its 750 outlets in the UK and Ireland. Burger King, which ran a trial at four stores, said it wanted to help customers make healthy choices but was unsure whether to roll out calorie counts. Mitchells and Butler, which runs 2,000 pubs, ended its trial at 25 branches last summer. It said, "We continue to make our own progress in this area across all of our brands."

Subway, the sandwich chain, has scrapped the idea of displaying calorie counts at tills where people order but they are available on counters where its rolls are made up in all branches. Compass, the contract caterer which has ended its trial, said it displayed calories for many meals.

Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at consumer group Which?, said: "This is something that research has showed people want. For this to work properly, a lot of companies need to take part." Ms Davies added that while some diners would not wish to see calories on the menu of restaurants where they might be celebrating a birthday, the situation was different at burger and sandwich chains where they ate regularly.

What they display:

Fast food outlets

Burger King
Outlets (UK): 500
Number of outlets displaying calories*: 4
High: Double Whopper with Cheese: 960 calories
Low: Cheeseburger: 320 calories

Outlets: 750**
Number displaying calories: 2
High: Zinger Tower burger: 655
Low: Fillet burger: 442

Outlets: 1,200
Number displaying calories: 0
High: Quarter pounder with cheese: 490
Low: McChicken sandwich: 385

Pizza Hut
Outlets: 700
Number displaying calories: 0
High: Cheesy bites pizza: 2,656
Low: Individual Italian pizza 752

Sandwich shops/cafes

Costa Coffee
Outlets: 1,000
Number displaying calories: O***
High: Blueberry muffin: 475
Low: Butter Croissant: 276

Pret A Manger
Outlets: 200
Number displaying calories: 200
High: Mozarella pesto bloomer: 564
Low: Lemon chicken sandwich 374

Outlets: 770**
Number displaying calories: 0***
Carrot cake: 560
Butter croissant: 279

Outlets: 1,400**
Number displaying calories: 1,400****
High: Meatball marinara six inch sub: 506
Low-fat ham six inch sum: 256

* Calories displayed in-store on menus or menu boards

**UK and Ireland

***Except legal requirement on pre-packed sandwiches

****Subway has stopped displaying calories in a bolder form by tills requested by FSA, but displays them on the counters where food is prepared