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Burgers -- We're loving them

By Alison Daniels for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In a couple of weeks a movie about the evils of fast food will open across the United States. "Fast Food Nation" -- based on the bestseller of the same title by Eric Schlosser -- has an all-star cast and horror tales aplenty about contaminated meat and the tribulations of illegal Mexican slaughterhouse workers.

The New York Times describes it as, "the most essential political film from an American director since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11."

So will the burger be quaking in its bun at this latest assault on its nutritional qualities?

Probably not. Despite the evidence that the West is in the grip of an obesity crisis, the fast food industry is in good health. Sales are up -- the burger is back.

Turnaround

Three years ago, when Morgan Spurlock's surprise hit, "Super Size Me," put the fast food industry under the grill, it was a different story. Health concerns and beef safety fears following the BSE crisis, seemed to be spelling out leaner times ahead.

Burger King's sales were languishing while McDonald's saw profits slump into the red for the first time in 50 years.

Today it's a different picture. In October McDonald's announced that over the third quarter comparable sales at its 30,000 restaurants increased by nearly 5.8 percent -- and 7.6 percent in Europe. The news sent the share price rocketing to a six-year high on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company also plans to open a further 250 outlets in China by 2008.

Meanwhile, McDonald's Japan said Wednesday its 2006 net profit will likely be at the higher end of the previously forecast. McDonald's Holdings Co. Ltd. (Japan), just under half-owned by McDonald's Corp. of the U.S., said it now expects a group net profit of $12.8-21.4 million for the year to December, up from its previous forecast.

It has been a similar story at Burger King. The firm has consistently posted positive same-store sales growth over the last two years.

In the UK there has been an explosion in the "posh" burger market. Javed Akhtar, operations manager for Gourmet Burger Kitchen said: "The burger business is massive and burgers will always be popular. We've seen our business almost double in six months. We use only the best ingredients, 100 percent Angus beef with a dab of olive oil. We've taken a simple product and done it as best we can."

So what's prompted the turnaround? In the last few year fast food giants say they have improved the quality of their products and embraced healthy eating. Most have introduced a raft of healthier products like salads, carrot sticks and fruit salads.

Only this week KFC announced that its New York restaurants will stop frying chicken in heart attack inducing trans fats, which health experts link to heart disease, and instead switch to healthier soybean oil. Wendy's has already switched to a zero-trans fat oil.

Out with the lettuce

But the reality is healthy foods aren't the reason consumers go to burger joints. Sales of salads and sandwiches make up less than 10 percent of McDonald's sales.

Commentators believe the effect of the fast food industry's robust healthy eating PR strategy has served as a trigger to sell more burgers and chips -- and the more indulgent the better.

Rachel Cooke, spokeswoman for The British Dietetic Association agrees. "The person on the street is worried about fat and salt and say they want more nutritional information. But there is a feeling that the food industry is making improvements and that eating the odd burger isn't going to matter."

Cooke also thinks consumers are in denial about obesity. "People simply don't perceive themselves as fat and therefore think that key health message doesn't apply to them. We've lost sight of what a normal weight actually is. People often describe someone who is a normal weight as 'skinny.'"

In fact consumers seem to be keen to ditch the lettuce altogether.

Take the 1,420 calorie Monster Thickburger, which went on sale last year at Hardee's and Carl's Jr. in the U.S. -- two one-third-pound slabs of Angus beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese and mayonnaise all served on a buttered sesame seed bun.

Its creator Andy Pudzer defended his cuisine by saying his customers just wanted tasty food. "We don't tell consumers what they want. They tell us." At Hardee's, same-store sales jumped by 4.4 percent after the introduction of the Monster Thickburger.

In the UK, McDonald's introduced a giant burger, 40 percent bigger than the Big Mac to coincide with the soccer World Cup.

Steve Easterbrook, Chief Executive for the UK, was equally bullish in his defense. He told the British press: "We are a burger business. Our traditional menu -- hamburger, cheeseburger, Big Mac and chicken sandwich -- is front and center of our plans. It's time to be proud and say we're a good burger company."

In the U.S., Burger King's Quad Stacker has been a whopping success. With four beef burgers, four slices of melted cheese and eight rashers of bacon it contains 1,000 calories, 68 grams of fat and 1.8 grams of salt.

Although 60 million Americans are obese and a further 10 million severely obese, Denny Marie Post, Burger King's senior vice president and chief concept officer says the fast food industry overestimated the appeal of healthier product lines.

"There are plenty of options on our menu for anyone who wants to make sensible choices." But for now, fries on the side please.


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Tasty bite....burger sales are up

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