As another court case keeps McDonald's fastfood in the glare of the media spotlight, the company is searching for ways to reverse the long slide in sales of its Happy Meals. Whatever McDonald's motivation for offering healthier food for children is, the move is to be welcomed.

McDonald's, the company that made hamburgers and fries the world's fastfood, is to trial a new, healthier scheme in the UK. Beginning in April, apples and grapes will be offered as an alternative to fries as part of its children's Happy Meals, and Robinson's Fruit Shoot will be available to replace sugary carbonated drinks.

These are uncertain times for McDonald's. In the fourth quarter of 2002 the company posted its first ever quarterly loss. And in January, a case brought by the families of two obese children that blamed McDonald's unhealthy fare for their weight problems was thrown out of court. The case generated a mountain of unwanted publicity when it hit headlines around the world and more litigation looks likely to follow.

For the past three years, McDonald's has also suffered declining sales of its key Happy Meals offering, which accounts for a fifth of all US sales. Happy Meals are aimed at children but also generate sales amongst adults - on average, orders including a Happy Meal are 50% more expensive than those without.

McDonald’s is uniquely successful at targeting children, which is an insignificant business for rivals such as Wendy's International. Even Burger King only launched its' Kids Meal in 1990, 14 years after the Happy Meal first appeared.

But the gap between McDonald's and its competitors is closing, and the company is looking for ways to fight back. McDonald's is afraid that rising concerns over childhood obesity mean that parents are keeping their children away from Happy Meals - a fear that is behind the new healthier alternatives.

Skeptics might say that McDonald's is cynically trying to put a healthy spin on its tarnished image. However, it is also possible that McDonald's is trying to break the deadlock of having reached saturation point in a mature market. If that means offering healthier products for children, the move is to be welcomed.

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