Fast food chains continuously lure children in Macau and elsewhere

The presence of fast food restaurants in different locations funded by public money, such as hospitals and schools, has caused controversies in many countries.

In Macau, there are also cases where fast food chains are allowed prime space within locations devoted to children’s education.

Such was the case recently at the multi-million Macao Science Center (MSC). The MSC relies on a publicly funded company (Macao Science Center S.A), in which the Macao Foundation, the Science and Technology Development Fund, and the Macau Productivity and Technology Transfer Center all have a stake. According to the company’s website, the president of its board of directors is Lau Si Io, the former Secretary for Transport and Public Works.

The McDonald’s “Memories Playland” promotion in Macau ended last month with great pomp at the Center, showcasing “happy meal toys” and other items related to the fast food chain. The promotion celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fast food chain’s Macau branch. A statue of a large burger stood at the entrance of the Center (see front page picture), which also hosts a large McDonald’s restaurant.

McDonald’s has long been a tenant of the MSC, which aims to promote scientific education among children. “Memories Playland” was a public relations campaign organized by local franchisee Golden Burger (Macau) Food Company Limited, said MSC.

Questioned by the Times as to whether it was fair to promote fast food in an educational center, MSC said it rents out facilities as a source of income.

In the reply, MSC said that the Center aims to complement the development of tourism in Macau while also promoting science, and to provide a regional platform for science education, conventions and exhibitions.

“MSC has been renting the lobby exhibition gallery to a variety of public and non-profit event organizers. The rental charges, in return, have also become a source of income for the Center,” MSC wrote. The Center, completed in 2009, is largely funded by Macao Foundation. The Macao Foundation issued a telegraphic answer this week, claiming that MDT’s questions had been “transferred to the Macao Science Center.”

The Times contacted the Golden Burger (Macau) Food Company and inquired as to how much Mcdonald’s pays annually to have a restaurant at the Science Center and whether the company  paid an extra value to have the 30th anniversary campaign there. The company replied claiming “those are confidential commercial terms that cannot be disclosed.”

Some would argue that McDonald’s presence in the Center – which is built to promote science education – is attracting children to high-calorie food: an issue that has caused controversy in several regions.

Children have become more enticed to consume fast food, particularly with the availability of “Happy Meals.”

The rise in obesity in Macau is thought to be due to the socio-
economic changes, increased exposure to westernized diets, and fast food culture.

The Assessment of Dietary Pattern and Nutritional Status Survey Report in Macau School Children, together with The Youth Risk Behavioral Survey in Macau, highlighted the excessive consumption of energy-dense diets and inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables as the main cause of obesity in children.

Angelina Vong, a registered dietitian at the Integrated Healthcare Division of Kiang Wu Hospital, told the Times that despite genetic factors, environmental factors could also contribute to how fast food is luring children.

According to Vong, the prevalence of childhood obesity among Chinese children has increased from 4.1 percent in 2000 to 8.1 percent in 2010.

“I believe there are a number of reasons which could explain this phenomena, [including] environmental temptation, [meaning] the location of ‘unhealthy food’ stores are often adjacent to the school area. This makes access to unhealthy food convenient for children and teenagers,” Vong explained.

“[There are] behavioral and mass media influences […] some fast food restaurants give out free toys as incentives and widely advertise on television to attract children. This might also attract some parents to purchase this meal for their children,” she continued.

The dietitian said it is important for parents to teach their children to spend on healthy snacks in order to facilitate a practice of healthy eating in their daily lives.

She also reminded parents that it is vital for children to build a good habit of healthy eating as early as the weaning stage for infants.

“The practice of eating healthily, particularly at a young age, [will] prevent future morbidities in our local society,” said Vong.

Several years ago in the United States, a lawsuit alleged that the advertisements of the country’s largest fast food chain manipulates children, as “children eight years old and younger do not have the cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising.”

Similar arguments have caused several regions, including Taiwan, to ban fast food advertising that targets children. Last January, Taiwan implemented limits on junk food advertising for children under 12 years old.

Dedicated television channels for children reportedly cannot broadcast advertisements of foods exceeding set fat, sodium, and sugar content limits from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Conversely, Macau-based psychologist Goreti Lima argued that fast food restaurants are only trying their best to sell products, and that such restaurants market their food to children because they are the largest target audience.

Lima contended that parents should be responsible for what their children consume, but acknowledged that the prevalence of fast food in Macau is making this an increasingly difficult task.

“It’s hard to focus children on other food if you have McDonald’s waving a lot of interesting things, but ultimately it’s the parents’ responsibility,” said Lima.

McDonald’s Macau opened its first restaurant along Rua do Campo on April 11, 1987. Currently, there are 29 restaurants in the territory. According to the management, three more restaurants will be added this year, but they have yet to disclose the locations.

“This is an open market, they do whatever they want to do, and sell what they want to sell [but] this is making it hard for the parents. If it’s fair or not, it’s another thing,” the psychologist Goreti Lima argued. “I’m not defending McDonald’s but they’re trying their best to make money, and children are a huge market in Macau; and they know exactly how to attract them,” Lima clarified.

Lima also contended that it is difficult for parents to convince children to consume healthier foods, particularly when fast- food restaurants seem to be more likeable.

Echoing the same sentiments, Angelina Vong also acknowledged that parents might affect children’s dietary patterns by influencing food provision and their social environment. She suggested that parents modify their children’s eating habits and do their best to promote healthy food consumption in their families.

Controversy at the Holy See

Earlier this year, a Mcdonald’s restaurant was opened on the ground floor of a Vatican-owned building, causing outrage among some cardinals. The fast-food giant was also heavily criticized in the United States years ago for setting up a branch in a children’s hospital. The establishment was also reportedly sued for marketing “Happy Meals” to children, arguing that it exploits children by advertising unhealthy meals to them with a free toy.

MSE pledges to repair faulty exhibits

The TIMES visited the Macao Science Center (MSC) recently and noted that several pieces of equipment that enable visitors to conduct simple scientific experiments are faulty or non-functional. When questioned on the matter, MSC claimed that that the Center receives over 900,000 visitors annually, and thus the number of defaced or broken exhibits is reasonably high. “When the attendance usually peaks during public holidays, so does the number of exhibits found damaged afterwards,” the Center stated.  The Center also added that it strives to “put in more effort in repairing the out-of-order exhibits.” Such efforts include increasing the manpower for repair and maintenance after festivals and public holidays. “We will follow up closely with our Exhibits Department to ensure that all exhibits are functioning properly,” MSC pledged.

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