Sun, Jul 22, 2007 - Page 17 News List

Supersize us

While McDonald's has responded to obesity concerns in the US, public health bodies in Taiwan do not believe it is doing enough for the problem in Asia

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taiwan's obesity problem is getting worse and fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's are contributing to a rise in overweight children.

PHOTOS: TAIPEI TIMES AND AFP

It seemed like such a straightforward question: "Do you want to supersize it?"

A customer ordering a Big Mac meal at the McDonald's at the corner of Townsend and Third streets in San Francisco, California, has the option of "upsizing" her French fries or getting a 32-ounce (.94 liter) soft drink instead of the usual 22 ounces (.65 liters). So does a customer at the McDonald's on Xingsheng South Road Section 3 in Taipei. But there's a crucial difference. In San Francisco, the person working the McJob behind the counter doesn't ask the customer if he or she wants to increase the size of his or her drink or fries. The customer has to ask.

In Taipei, though, the customer who orders an extra value meal is always asked if he or she would like to jia da (加大), "upsize," or supersize. And according to a number of local studies, the jia da of McDonald's and other fast-food meals is a contributing to Asia's obesity problem.

Chu Nain-feng (祝年豐), a physician at the Tri-Service General Hospital in Neihu, Taipei, and Director General of Taichung County's Public Health Bureau, will release a study next month which says over 30 percent of Taiwanese boys aged six to 12 are overweight or obese. Increased portion sizes and "upsizing" at fast food restaurants, he told the Taipei Times on Thursday, are part of the problem.

Also next month, the Consumer's Foundation (消基會) plans to raise the issue of rising obesity rates among Taiwanese children. In an interview on Tuesday, Chairman Cheng Jen-hung (程仁宏) said his group also has a new study and that fast food restaurants are partly to blame. He reserved his harshest words for McDonald's because it continues to ask customers if they want to jia da every time they purchase an extra value meal.

"In America they [McDonald's] seem to really care about obesity, because of the bad publicity and lawsuits related to supersized meals. But in Taiwan and other Asian countries McDonald's doesn't have the same modus operandi," he said. "They can increase their profits by inducing customers to overeat. They can still get away with this here because Taiwan has fewer advocacy groups than the US and a less litigious culture."

IN DENIAL

According to Lisa Howard, the hamburger giant's Director of Corporate and Media Relations, "We do not supersize."

In an e-mail exchange Wednesday, Howard wrote, "we ended supersizes in 2004, that's true systemwide (sic) … . In the US, we eliminated super sizes of drinks and fries in 2004 as part of an overall menu simplification effort."

After four days of telephone and e-mail exchanges with McDonald's world headquarters at One McDonald's Plaza in Oak Brook, Illinois, the corporation seemed intent on reducing the whole debate to a matter of semantics.

"We do not offer supersize in Asia. We offer customers a range of options, just as we do in other markets, three sizes, small, medium and large. The large drink in Taiwan is 32 ounces. In the United States, our large drink is also 32 ounces. So there is no comparison to be made between Asia and America," Howard wrote.

Technically speaking, and according to McDonald's definition of supersize, Howard's right. What the burger company called a supersized soft drink - the kind that is no longer served - was 42 ounces.

When asked why McDonald's in Taiwan asks customers to jia da, Jessica Pan (潘瑞蓮), supervisor of McDonald's Taiwan's public relations department, said the franchise offers a variety of choices for customers because "some people may need larger portions of food. It's all about choice," she said.

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