By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - McDonald's Corp said on Tuesday it will soon tweak its children's Happy Meals, reducing the French fry portion by more than half and automatically adding apples to the popular meals, after coming under pressure from consumer groups to provide healthier fare.
McDonald's -- which consumer groups say should lower calories, sugar and sodium in its meals for children -- said that it would start making the changes in September and that the new Happy Meals would be available in all of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants by the first quarter of 2012.
The world's largest hamburger chain also said it would reduce sodium, added sugars, saturated fats and calories across its entire U.S. menu by 2020.
"We are going to be casting our gaze more closely on portion management as well as how we can introduce more food groups such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Cindy Goody, McDonald's senior director of nutrition, said on a webcast.
The new child's French fry portion will be 1.1 ounces, down from 2.4 ounces previously. The new child's fry portion has about 100 calories, the company said.
The new apple portion includes a half-cup of peeled fruit and has no added sugar or accompanying dipping sauces.
The move will reduce calorie counts for Happy Meals by about 20 percent. As a result, the new Happy Meals will be well under 600 calories.
Prices will not change as a result of the new composition, and toys will continue to be included in every Happy Meal, said Jan Field, McDonald's U.S.A. president.
The move from McDonald's came after San Francisco and nearby Santa Clara County, California, passed laws that would curb free toy giveaways with unhealthy restaurant meals for children.
"Without the looming prospect of regulation in cities and states around the country, McDonald's would not have taken as seriously the concerns that the public health community and parents have been sharing with them about this issue," said Samantha Graff, director of legal research at Public Health Law & Policy, which drafted the models for the ordinances eventually adopted in Santa Clara County and San Francisco.
The restaurant industry has fought such efforts by backing laws that restrict local lawmakers' ability to regulate restaurant marketing and other activities.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that advocates healthier restaurant food for children, last year sued McDonald's to stop the world's largest hamburger chain from using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants.
Burger King Corp, DineEquity Inc's IHOP and more than a dozen other restaurant chains earlier this month said they were backing an industry effort to serve and promote healthier meals for children. McDonald's said it supported that effort, from the National Restaurant Association.
Shares in McDonald's were off 2 cents at $88.10 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)