McDonald's faces lawsuit threat over 'Happy Meal' toy offers

A nonprofit consumer watchdog is threatening to sue McDonald's unless the fast-food giant stops using toys to market fast food to children.

Using toys to promote "Happy Meals" represents unfair and deceptive marketing and is illegal under various state consumer protection laws, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest , a health advocacy group that promotes nutrition, food safety, and pro-health alcohol policies.

CSPI today served McDonald's a notice of its intent to sue, saying its toy-related promotions violate state consumer protection laws in Massachusetts, Texas, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and California. The letter gives McDonald's 30 days to cease and desist before filing suit.

"McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children," CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner said in a statement. "McDonald's use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children's developmental immaturity -- all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It's a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction."

McDonald's says it disagrees with the advocacy group, and that Happy Meal offerings can be wholesome.

"We couldn't disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)," said William Whitman, McDonald's V.P. of Communications, in a statement. "In the U.S., McDonald's primarily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and one% low-fat white milk. We are proud of our Happy Meal which gives our customers wholesome food and toys of the highest quality and safety. Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's."

The ubiquitous fast food chain is currently offering toys related to the latest Shrek movie, although CSPI's action is unrelated to the recent recall of McDonald's Shrek drinking glasses contaminated with the toxic heavy metal cadmium. According to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission report, food companies spend more than $350 million on toy giveaways each year.

In 2007, McDonald's pledged not to promote children's meals that contained more than 600 calories, as well as certain percentages of fat and sugar, which include the meal Whitman cited and another offering a hamburger. But toys, the CSPI argues, are a powerful temptation, and included with all Happy Meals. Of the 24 possible Happy Meal combinations listed on McDonald's website, all exceed 430 calories (430 is one-third of the 1,300- calorie recommended daily intake for children 4 to 8 years old). A Happy Meal packed with a cheeseburger, french fries and Sprite contains half a day's calories and saturated fat (640 and 7 grams, respectively), about 940 milligrams of sodium, and about two days' worth of sugar (35 grams) -- and a toy often related to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Conditioning children to love burgers, fries, and soda puts them at greater risk of developing obesity, diabetes, or other diet-related diseases over the course of their lifetimes, says the CSPI.

"... Regardless of the nutritional quality of what's being sold, the practice of tempting kids with toys is inherently deceptive," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a statement. "I'm sure that industry's defenders will blame parents for not saying 'no' to their children. Parents do bear much of the responsibility, but multi-billion-dollar corporations make parents' job nearly impossible by giving away toys and bombarding kids with slick advertising."

Using toys to promote fast food also raised the ire of the Santa Clara County, Calif., Board of Supervisors, which in April passed an ordinance preventing McDonald's and other restaurants from including toys or other child-related incentives with the purchase of unhealthy meals.

"We know from scientific research that young children -- and even older ones -- do not have the ability to understand how marketing has been designed to influence them," said Kathryn Montgomery, professor of communication at American University and an expert on media and children, in a statement. "In the era of digital marketing, these vulnerabilities are magnified even further. McDonald's use of these techniques raises troubling questions, for health professionals, parents, and policy makers."

In 2006, CSPI's litigation unit notified Kellogg of its intent to sue for marketing sugary cereals and other junk food directly to children. A year later, the two parties reached a settlement setting nutrition standards for products the company promotes to children. The same year, a CSPI lawsuit against Kentucky Fried Chicken forced the chicken chain to adopt trans-fat-free frying oil.

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