The Great 21st Century Waistline War is upon us.
Obesity is a disease, the American Medical Association has declared. Several legislative efforts in recent years have tried to enforce better nutritional tendencies. Almost any week of the year, it's not difficult to find media reports lamenting America's eating habits. While a number of factors are behind our pants and skirt sizes — genetics, the growth in desk jobs, lack of exercise, what we devour — the fast-food industry often gets considerable blame for this state of affairs.
It's easy to see why. McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKW), Wendy's (WEN), KFC and the multitude of other burger, pizza and chicken chains out there serve quickly made mass-produced foods, many of which contain abundant calories, saturated fats and sodium.
The fact that fast food doesn't equal health food is hardly news, and it hasn't been for years. However, the response to its continuing place in the modern diet has put an ever-expanding target on its vendors' collective backside.
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has crusaded against sugary drinks and demanded calorie counts. San Francisco ruled that McDonald's Happy Meals weren't welcome by the Bay. Parents and those of a particular political persuasion have been known to applaud such efforts, even if the courts haven't always agreed with the food-ordinance fans / food police. In Washington, First Lady Michelle Obama has taken a softer approach, making healthy foods for children a key part of her time in the White House, while President Obama himself said this week that broccoli was his favorite food.
Outside of the industry, you won't find many stirring defenses of fast food, and clearly it's impossible to argue seriously that a Big Mac or Whopper is better for a body than a plate of raw carrots and blueberries. Still, fast food stands strong, even amid ongoing efforts by governments and the medical establishment to stress (or mandate) dietician-approved meals, the studies on the lower education levels of unhealthy eaters and a press that loves to dig at the sector with commentary about gut-busting burgers and such.
Fast food may be an endangered species one day, and there's no doubt whatsoever its opponents won't be deterred. But for now, an awful lot of big numbers suggest entrenched habits may die hard. Certainly, some changes have taken place in the group -- trans fats have gotten the boot, and salads and yogurts have found space on the menus — yet by and large junk remains king. Here's how it all measures up.
--Fast-food restaurant sales are expected to rise 4.9% from last year to $188.1 billion in 2013, according to National Restaurant Association forecasts. Of all restaurant visits in the United States, fast-food outlets account for 78% of the total. The "limited-service" total is projected at $225.4 billion when snack bars, cafeterias and buffets are counted.
--Maybe that's because they're everywhere. According to data from market researcher NPD, the U.S. is home to more than 313,000 fast-food and fast-casual (for instance, Chipotle) restaurants. Among big markets, Denver has the most coverage, based on population, with 118 such locations per 100,000 people.
--And even when they're slow, they're pretty fast. Count on spending somewhere around 2 minutes and 53 seconds at your drive-thru, QSR magazine found in its latest survey.
--Data from food industry analyzer Technomic, carried on the website of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says that, in 2008, commercial restaurant operators bought 5.4 billion lbs. of beef. Over 43% of that, or 2.32 billion lbs., was purchased by restaurants classified as "limited-service." That segment includes the likes of McDonald's, Subway and Pizza Hut. The U.S. Census estimates the country had roughly 304 million residents that year, meaning each person in the nation consumed an average of 7.64 lbs. of quick-serve restaurant beef.
--In 2010, 44% of chicken meat was sold to restaurants, the National Chicken Council reports. Of that, fast food had 57% of the share. Broiler production — chickens raised for meat — totaled 36.5 billion ready-to-cook lbs. that year, of which 81.5% was sold domestically. Boiled down, about 7.5 billion lbs. of chicken went to the fast-food chains.
--How big is McDonald's? Systemwide sales were $88.3 billion last year, $18.6 billion of which came from company-owned restaurants and $69.7 billion from franchised restaurants. That averages to almost $2.6 million of sales per location. Overall sales recorded by the McDonald's chain — again, owned and franchised stores — was more than the top line at airplane maker Boeing (BA), which had $81.7 billion in revenue in 2012.
--In 2010, an average fast-food restaurant location collected $753,000 in sales. As noted above, a single McDonald's outlet does more than three times that.
--A sizable footprint for this Group of 7. Last year, the combined total of McDonald's, Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Wendy's and Taco Bell restaurants around the world exceeded 131,000.
--The National Potato Council, citing USDA statistics, says per capita potato consumption in the U.S. in 2012 was estimated at 112 lbs. Of that, 50 lbs was attributed to frozen products, which includes French fries. The NPC also says National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data for 2005-08 found that male teens aged 14-18 got an average of 86.5 calories a day, or 3.2% of their 2,655.5 total, from fries. Female teens in the same age group got 67.8 calories of their 1,877.9 total (3.6%) from fries.
--Have ketchup with that. Heinz says on its website that it sells 11 billion single-serve ketchup packets globally every year.
--And onions. The National Onion Association notes that onion consumption per person surged from 12.2 lbs. in 1982 to 20 lbs. in 2009. That's not all from fast food, but it is part of the story. "Onion rings, onion blooms, other onion appetizers, caramelized onions, and classic French Onion Soup remain popular restaurant uses for onions. In the past decade, red onions have gained popularity especially in fast casual dining segments on pizza, sandwiches and salads," the group says.
--Speaking of pizza ... nearly 72,000 pizzerias in the U.S. recorded $36.8 billion in sales between September 2011 and September 2012.
--The Quarter Pounder is marking 40 years on the full McDonald's menu. It was a mere 21, but unquestionably a household name, when "Pulp Fiction" claimed in 1994 that, in France, the sandwich was called the "Royale With Cheese." Close, but not quite.
--At the end of 2012, McDonald's had 34,480 restaurants in its system. The U.S. accounted for 14,157 of those. The country with the second-most McDonald's locations was Japan, with 3,279. Germany is third, with 1,440 McDonald's. Cuba has one House of Ronald, at Guantanamo Bay.
--If you want to open a McDonald's, you'll need at least three-quarters of a million dollars to be viewed as a good candidate for the Golden Arches. From the company's website: "Generally, we require a minimum of $750,000 of non-borrowed personal resources to consider you for a franchise."