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Watchdog group pushes to get Big Macs and fries out of hospitals

A national watchdog group is demanding that the nation’s hospitals -- including Jackson Memorial and Broward Health Medical Center -- kick McDonald’s restaurants off their campuses to “to help curb the epidemic of diet-related disease and to stop fostering a food environment that promotes harm, not health.”

The move this week by Corporate Accountability International is one of a growing number of aggressive campaigns combat the fattening of America, where two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, creating medical problems that cost the country more than do cigarette smokers.

McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said the company is proud of its evolving menu, which offers a wide variety of options, including many that are low in fat, sodium and calories. “It’s not about where you eat,” she said. It’s about “how much a person chooses to consume.” Of the 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the country, only 26 are on hospital campuses, she said.

It’s those hospital eateries that Corporate Accountability is targeting. In a letter to the facilities, the group asked them to be leaders in improving the nation’s health. “Experts do know that reducing junk food consumption can significantly improve the health of kids. Scientific evidence also confirms what common sense has told us for decades – that environments laden with fast food restaurants and junk food marketing have profoundly negative impacts on children’s lifelong eating habits and well-being.”

Last year, more than 1900 healthcare professionals signed a letter sponsored by Corporate Accountability to McDonald’s Chief Executive Jim Skinner, asking that he “stop marketing junk food to children.” Among the signers of that letter was Janine Sanchez, director of the Pediatric Diabetes Program at the University of Miami. On Thursday, Jackson spokesman Edwin O’Dell said, “McDonald’s is part of Jackson Memorial’s retail campus, which includes several other restaurants. The contracts of each of these facilities are reviewed at the end of each contract period.” He said visitors and employees have “a variety of good options where to eat.”

Broward Health spokeswoman Jenny Mackie said her institution had a “long-standing relationship with McDonald’s, including an on-campus Ronald McDonald House,” which provides housing to the parents of sick kids through a foundation associated with the fast-food company. “Their support was instrumental in funding the opening of our Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and they have been active members of our Community Relations Council.”

Jackson Memorial also has a Ronald McDonald House.

In its letters to hospitals, Corporate Responsibility said: “It’s really no surprise McDonald’s sites stores in hospitals. After all, for decades, McDonald’s has attempted to co-opt the health community, to deflect blame for the epidemic of disease that it has helped drive, and to pose itself as part of the solution.”

Sriram Madhusoodanan, a spokesman for Corporate Responsibility, said Thursday three hospitals have already responded to the group’s letter, vowing not to renew the McDonald’s leases. “We hope South Florida Hospitals ... will be next in line.”

He said that the group was doing the McDonald’s campaign very much in the style of its efforts in the past to stop Big Tobacco from advertising to youths with such cartoon figures as Joe Camel.

“Predatory marketing to children was the hallmark of Big Tobacco nearly two decades ago,” Madhusoodanan wrote in an e-mail. “McDonald’s and the fast food industry have taken a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook and are driving an epidemic of diet-related diseases by getting kids addicted to their junk food at a young age and building brand loyalties that last a lifetime.”

Fighting McDonald’s is not easy. Toby Cosgrove, a heart surgeon who is chief executive of Cleveland Clinic, has made masterful strides in expanding the organization nationwide, including growing its operations in Weston, but he failed miserably against McDonald’s.

In 2004, when he was named head of the clinics, he announced grandly he was going to oust the McDonald’s restaurant on the Cleveland campus.

The community erupted in a “firestorm,” Cosgrove told a Herald reporter in 2007.

“It turned out the owner of that McDonald’s was an African American. McDonald’s played the race card. It got difficult,.” Cosgrove said. Upshot: the McDonald’s owner said he would add carrots and apples. Cosgrove retreated, even though he said he knew most persons would continue to order fries and Big Macs. “We were not particularly interested in having open warfare with McDonald’s.”

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