(Aug. 4) The meteoric growth of salad sales at fast-food restaurants is helping reinvigorate the lettuce industry.

The increasing trend toward health-conscious menus at fast-food chains such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King and Jack in the Box has breathed new life into lettuce shippers and processors, which for a short time this summer couldn’t keep up with the increasing demand for salads to serve their customers.

“McDonald’s is running 50% ahead of their sales projections,” said Sammy Duda, vice president and general manager of Duda California/Gene Jackson Farms Inc., Salinas, Calif.

McDonald’s Corp. officials credit increasing sales of its premium salads and other new product offerings for record second-quarter sales. McDonald’s added its premium salad line in March.

BETTER THAN EXPECTED

“They exceeded all of our expectations and caught us off guard in a good way,” Duda said.

Demand from McDonald’s and other fast-food chains kept romaine and iceberg lettuce prices unseasonably high in May through July.

In late May, 24-count cartons of romaine from the Salinas-Watsonville district were fetching f.o.b.s of $30.10-30.75, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same time last year, the range was $4-4.70.

“These salads have a good ring at the register,” Duda said. “They sell better than just the regular old ‘blah’ salad item they had before. There are profits to be made. I think it rejuvenates the salad category in many ways.”

12% GROWTH

Salad demand among fast-food chains grew 12% in the year that ended in May, according to a study on eating habits by the NPD Group Inc., a New York-based market research firm.

“The availability of entrée salads at fast-food restaurants is sparking renewed interest in salads,” said Harry Balzer, NPD’s vice president.

Recent reports on obesity and increasing newspaper articles on salads have helped fuel that growth.

“We’ve seen a race to the finish line, kind of like a run on a bank, among fast-food companies and quick-serve restaurants,” said Ken Hodge, director of communications for the Alexandria, Va.-based International Fresh-cut Produce Association. “They have been adding premium salads to their menus at a real good clip.”

The increase comes as main dish salad sales at all restaurants actually declined 3% from 1989-2002. The study found consumers were not eating a lot more salads, but were buying them at new places.