Time to pension off Ronald McDonald, say campaigners

He has been the smiling face of the McDonald's fast food empire for more than 40 years, but doctors in the US are demanding that Ronald McDonald finally be ordered into retirement – for the good of everyone's health.

On the eve of McDonald's annual shareholder meeting, healthy-eating campaigners have launched an open letter to the group, demanding that it stops marketing to children.

Hundreds of health professionals have already signed the letter, which claims the company's menu of burgers and fries is making America's children fat and contributing to ballooning health costs in the States.

Corporate Accountability International, the campaign group, plans to push the issue of Ronald McDonald's retirement at today's meeting and is organising protests. The open letter, which has now attracted over 550 signatures, appeared yesterday in national newspapers across the US.

"Our community is devoted to caring for sick children and preventing illness through public education," it says. "But our efforts cannot compete with the hundreds of millions of dollars you spend each year directly marketing to kids. Advertising is at the heart of McDonald's business model, with annual expenditures reaching $2bn. Your marketing practices set the standard for competitors across industries."

Since the mid-Sixties, McDonald's has hired actors to dress up as its friendly clown for children's birthday parties at its restaurants and at other events. At one point, the character spawned a cartoon series and the company claims his image is as famous to children around the world as that of any character, aside from Father Christmas.

The company denies the mascot is a bad influence on children. In fact, it says, he is quite the opposite, since he now extols the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. "Ronald is an ambassador for good and delivers important messages to kids on safety, literacy and balanced, active lifestyles," it said in a statement.

The company also points to charitable work done in the clown's name. There are some 500 paid-for Ronald McDonald houses and family rooms in or near hospitals. The company also insists its menus are not junk food, but offer a range of healthier items for children, including apple dippers and low-fat milk in its Happy Meals.

None of these developments have moved McDonald's from the centre of the debate over childhood obesity and its causes, however. The company is being sued in California over its marketing practices, including the use of the clown character and the placing of toys in Happy Meals tied to children's movies. Some cities in the state have banned free toys with meals over a certain number of calories.

And today, nine orders of nuns will assail management, asking that they pay more heed to the influence of their marketing tactics on children. They are leading a group of small shareholders proposing that McDonald's funds research into the link between its business and childhood obesity and on the risks that public health concerns lead to a backlash that hits profits.

The open letter signed by doctors contends that children under-12 effectively control $40bn of annual consumer spending, because of their ability to nag their parents and that habits formed in childhood can last a lifetime.

Many of the same newspapers that reported support for the open letter yesterday also told the story of a Wisconsin man who made history by finishing off his 25,000th Big Mac. Don Gorske, 57, insisted he was healthy, saying: "I had my cholesterol just checked a couple weeks ago and it was 156."

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