OAK BROOK, Illinois (Debra Sherman) - McDonald's Corp spurned calls to assess the impact of its food on childhood obesity, and said its trademark clown Ronald McDonald would be hawking Happy Meals to kids for years to come.
"This is about choice and we believe in the democratic process," Chief Executive Jim Skinner told a packed room at its shareholders' meeting, to an enthusiastic wave of applause. "This is about the personal and individual right to choose."
Shareholders of the world's largest fast-food chain resoundingly rejected a proposal that would have required it to issue a report outlining its role in the childhood obesity epidemic, saying customers were free to make their own dietary choices.
"Ronald McDonald is an ambassador to McDonald's and he is an ambassador for good. Ronald McDonald is going nowhere," Skinner said firmly, prompting more cheers from shareholders.
Among the dissenters at the meeting was Dr. Donald Zeigler, director of Prevention and Health Lifestyles at the American Medical Association, who asked when the burger chain will stop marketing to children using Ronald McDonald.
Zeigler, who is also visiting assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center, was one of 550 healthcare professionals who had signed an open letter to McDonald's pleading that it "stop making the next generation sick."
On Tuesday, a watchdog group placed ads in newspapers across the country calling for McDonald's to stop marketing to children through the clown, toy giveaways and other tactics.
Some 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Being overweight during childhood raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and a host of other diseases.
McDonald's has been a lightning rod for criticism for years over its marketing tactics and sales of Happy Meals for children that include toys as inducements.
McDonald's allows parents to swap milk or juice for soda in its Happy Meals. It also offers sliced apples with caramel sauce and chicken nuggets as alternatives to french fries and hamburgers.
The restaurant chain has added healthier options to its menu, including salads and oatmeal, but critics argue there is still too much fat, salt and sugar in its meals. Even the oatmeal, one critic noted, contains about as much sugar as a Snickers candy bar.
Skinner defended McDonald's strategy, which has resulted in hefty sales and earnings for shareholders. McDonald's shares have gained nearly 12 percent in the last four months and rallied to a record high of $82.63 on Thursday.
But as experts point out, obese children often grow into obese adults, overburdening the entire healthcare system.
Ironically, Miles White, chairman and chief executive of diversified healthcare company Abbott Laboratories, has been a director of the McDonald's board since 2009.
Abbott makes a broad range of drugs, including cholesterol-lowering statins, and medical devices, such as heart stents used on patients with clogged arteries.
(Reporting by Debra Sherman, Lisa Baertlein and Jessica Wohl; Editing by Richard Chang)
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