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McDonald’s stands up to health critics

Despite some critics’ contentions that McDonald’s uses its mascot, Ronald McDonald, to market to children, the company intends to keep the iconic figure. The chain recently added more healthful menu choices, such as chicken wraps.

JOHN SMIERCIAK/ ASSOCIATED PRESS/ FILE

Despite some critics’ contentions that McDonald’s uses its mascot, Ronald McDonald, to market to children, the company intends to keep the iconic figure. The chain recently added more healthful menu choices, such as chicken wraps.

NEW YORK — McDonald’s once again faced criticism that it is a purveyor of junk food that markets to children on Thursday at its annual shareholder meeting.

The world’s biggest hamburger chain has been looking to keep up with changing tastes as people increasingly opt for foods they feel are fresh or healthy. Customers can now order egg whites in its breakfast sandwiches, for example. McDonald’s also recently introduced chicken wraps to go after people in their 20s and 30s looking for better-for-you options.

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But on Thursday, McDonald’s was taken to task by speakers associated with an advocacy group about its menu and advertising toward children. As with other shareholder meetings where critics are given the rare chance to face executives, McDonald’s Corp. allotted about a half-hour for attendees to ask chief executive Don Thompson questions.

Among those was a 9-year-old girl who asked Thompson to stop ‘‘tricking kids into eating your food.’’ Her mother said McDonald’s undermines parents by marketing to children.

Another speaker asked that McDonald’s remove its locations from hospitals, while others asked it to stop targeting communities of color by signing stars such as Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and the NBA’s LeBron James.

Three of the individuals were members of Corporate Accountability, which has been critical of the company’s marketing practices. Others were health professionals, parents, or writers linked to the group.

Thompson stood by the company’s menu, saying McDonald’s doesn’t sell ‘‘junk food,’’ pointing out items such as the yogurt parfait and side salad and noting that the company has been adding more fruits and vegetables. Still, he said at one point, ‘‘I do agree we have some issues, and we can be part of the solution.’’

Other fast-food chains such as Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell aren’t exactly paragons of healthy eating, of course. And plenty of mom-and-pop restaurants sell food with just as many calories and fat as a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder. But with more than 14,000 US locations, McDonald’s is an easy target because of its size, and for many it has become a symbol of processed foods.

The criticism is far from new, but its persistence illustrates the uphill battle McDonald’s faces in trying to evolve its image and stay relevant. After years of outperforming rivals, the company has been struggling to increase sales more recently. During the first quarter, global sales at restaurants open at least a year fell 1 percent. That marked the first quarterly decline in a decade.

McDonald’s has blamed its troubles in part on the broader economy, saying the restaurant industry was flat to declining in the past year.

Corporate Accountability in recent years had pressured McDonald’s to stop using Ronald McDonald to market to children. Thompson noted that the company isn’t using Ronald ‘‘the way it used to’’ but nevertheless stood by the mascot.

‘‘Ronald is not a bad guy — he’s about fun, he’s a clown,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘So I’d ask all you to let your kids have fun, too.’’

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