Health Group Says It Will Sue McDonald's Over Happy Meals

McDonald's Happy MealIn June, the Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) threatened to sue McDonald's (MCD) over the use of toys to promote Happy Meals. Now, it looks like it will finally happen.

CSPI had originally threatened to file suit against the world's largest restaurant chain by July. That timeline proved too optimistic to given the complexities of the case, according to Stephen Gardner, the organization's litigation director.

"Everything takes longer than I think because I am an optimist," he says in an interview. "It could be next week (when it will be filed), but it's more likely to be the week after."

The conflict between McDonald's and CSPI centers around childhood obesity rates, which have more than tripled over the past 30 years, Some argue that McDonald's and other purveyors of cheap, calorie-rich food bear some of the blame, an argument the fast-food chain rejects.

A Matter of Rights

McDonald's, which is fighting an effort in San Francisco to ban Happy Meal toys, has said that CSPI's claims are without merit. Chief Executive Jim Skinner wrote to the advocacy group in July saying that most consumers have no problems with how Happy Meals are marketed. "Parents, in particular, strongly believe that they have the right and responsibility to decide what's best for their children, not CSPI," he writes. "It's that simple."

According to Gardner, McDonald's is using the Happy Meal toys, which often promote movies, to deceptively market unhealthy food to children, who in turn beg their parents to take them to the restaurant. CSPI, he says, is trying to assist parents, not usurp their authority.

"Kids under the age of eight do not understand that they are being advertised to," Gardner says."It's without question that it's detrimental to kids."

The home of the Golden Arches is fighting against Happy Meal critics in California as well. Officials in Santa Clara voted in April to ban McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants from providing promotional toys. A similar measure is pending before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which would prevent chains from "putting toys in children's meals unless they include fruits and vegetables and don't have too many unhealthy calories," according to the Associated Press.

No surprisingly, McDonald's sees things differently.

"As we have previously stated, we will continue to work with city officials to identify a solution to the very important topic of childhood obesity," says Danya Proud, a company spokesperson, in a statement. "Even with the amendments the supervisors have made, this proposal is not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for."

Investors don't appear to be too worried about the controversy. Shares of McDonald's are up more than 21% this year. Gardener says he isn't aware of other local governments demanding action on Happy Meal toys.

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