US fastfood giant McDonald’s has posted its first ever quarterly loss, hit by the cost of closing hundreds of restaurants.

The burger chain reported a net loss of US$344m for the fourth quarter compared with a profit of $272m in the year-ago period. The loss was more than four times greater than the company had forecast five weeks ago.

McDonald’s has been suffering due to factors such as price wars with its competitors, outbreaks of BSE in Japan and Europe, and the growing popularity of healthy food.

Since the 1950’s when founder Ray Kroc first started selling hamburgers and french fries at the Golden Arches restaurants, McDonald’s has expanded rapidly across the world; at one point a new store was being added to the chain every four hours.

Recently however, McDonald’s popularity has fallen. Seen by many as a symbol of global capitalism, the company has also been accused of destroying the environment and being responsible for obesity in the US. A lawsuit against McDonald’s alleging that the chain was responsible for children’s obesity was recently thrown out of a US court.

In the fourth quarter, then chain took charges of $656.9m after taxes, mainly to cover the cost of closing 719 restaurants, exiting the markets of Bolivia, Paraguay and Trinidad, restructuring in the Middle East, cutting around 600 jobs and ending a technology project.

McDonald’s said worldwide sales, including both company-owned and franchised restaurants were up 4% to $10.5bn in the fourth quarter. Excluding foreign currency effects, sales were up 2% to $3.9bn. Sales at comparable restaurants in the US and Europe, the company’s two largest markets, were down in the quarter.

The company also said it would close an additional 517 under-performing restaurants in the US and Japan, reported Reuters.