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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - McDonald's Corp said on Tuesday it will soon tweak its Happy Meals, reducing the french fry portion by more than half and automatically adding apples to the popular children's meals, after coming under pressure from consumer groups to provide healthier fare.
McDonald's -- which has been taking heat from parents, consumer groups and local lawmakers over the nutritional content and marketing of Happy Meals -- said it would start making the changes in September and the new Happy Meals would be available in all of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants by the end of the first quarter of 2012.
The world's largest hamburger chain also plans a 15 percent reduction in sodium across its U.S. menu by 2015. Beyond that, it vowed to cut sodium, added sugars, saturated fats and calories in domestic meals by 2020.
"We are going to be casting our gaze more closely on portion management as well as how we can introduce more food groups such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Cindy Goody, McDonald's senior director of nutrition, said on a webcast.
The new child's french fry portion will be 1.1 ounces, down from 2.4 ounces previously, and equal to about 100 calories.
McDonald's currently offers apple slices with caramel dipping sauce as a Happy Meal side. The new apple portion size is 1.2 ounces, compared with 3.1 ounces previously, and has no added sugar or accompanying dipping sauces.
The new Happy Meals will have about 20 percent fewer calories than today's most popular Happy Meal, executives said. As a result, the new Happy Meals will be under 600 calories.
Prices will not change as a result of the new composition, and toys will continue to be included in every Happy Meal, said Jan Field, McDonald's U.S.A. president.
The move from McDonald's came after San Francisco and nearby Santa Clara County, California, passed laws that would curb free toy giveaways with kids' meals that did not meet nutritional requirements.
"Without the looming prospect of regulation in cities and states around the country, McDonald's would not have taken as seriously the concerns that the public health community and parents have been sharing with them about this issue," said Samantha Graff, director of legal research at Public Health Law & Policy, which drafted the models for the ordinances eventually adopted in Santa Clara County and San Francisco.
Field told Reuters that the changes announced on Tuesday were in the works for more than two years and had nothing to do with the Santa Clara County and San Francisco laws.
Field added that the new Happy Meals still would not meet San Francisco's nutritional rules, which also require a vegetable serving.
Still, she said it is "absolutely" possible that McDonald's could add a vegetable to Happy Meals over the next five years.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that advocates healthier restaurant food for children, last year sued McDonald's to stop it from using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants.
Some 1,700 health professionals and institutions also have signed an open letter to McDonald's Chief Executive Jim Skinner calling for it to stop marketing junk food to kids.
CSPI's nutrition policy director Margo Wootan, called the latest McDonald's changes a step in the right direction.
"McDonald's is an industry leader and Happy Meals have been copied by so many restaurants," she said. "Having them change the nutritional quality for the Happy Meal sets a standard for the industry."
Burger King Corp, DineEquity Inc's IHOP and more than a dozen other restaurant chains earlier this month backed an industry effort to serve and promote healthier meals for children. McDonald's said it supported that effort, from the National Restaurant Association.
As part of that, Burger King said it was removing french fries and soda as the default for its kids' meals. Diners now have to choose between those options or sliced apples, fat-free milk or juice before an order can be completed.
While the restaurant industry is taking steps to appease its critics, it also has been backing laws designed to restrict local lawmakers' ability to regulate restaurant marketing and other activities.
Shares in McDonald's were up 4 cents to $88.16 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Reporting by Lisa Baertlein, editing by Gerald E. McCormick