Child eats a Happy mealComparing a McDonald's Happy Meal toy to an irresistible centerfold, Center for Science in the Public Interest Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson today announced a lawsuit against the fast-food giant for marketing to children.

"Dangling a toy in front of a child is like putting a scantily clad woman in front of men," he said, adding that children don't have the cognitive ability to realize the marketing ploy. The lawsuit -- filed on behalf of a Sacramento mom with two young children -- contends McDonald's broke consumer protection laws governing deceptive advertising by including toys in Happy Meals. Monet Parham said she wanted McDonald's to stop marketing the meals using toys from popular movies such as Shrek.

"My children really want the toys that are in those meals," she said, adding the meals often get cold while her kids -- ages 6 and 2 -- play with the toys instead of eating. "I'm concerned about the health of my children frankly ... I don't think it's OK to entice children."

The lawsuit isn't seeking money, said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. Instead, it's looking for the courts to stop McDonald's from advertising Happy Meals that contain toys and also seeks class-action status.

There's a lot of money and market share at stake here. CSPI pointed to data compiled in 2006 that shows fast-food companies spent more than $520 million that year on advertising and toys to market children's meals. Toy premiums made up almost three-quarters of those expenses, totaling more than $350 million.

Children age 8 and younger influenced their families' expenditures and spent about $200 billion each year on themselves -- one-third of that is on food and beverages, according to the lawsuit.

Jacobson said that even though healthier options are offered on menus, those choices aren't as easy to get in the Happy Meals as consumers might think.

"McDonald's congratulates itself for meals that are hypothetically possible, though it knows very well that it's mostly selling burgers or chicken nuggets, fries and sodas to very young children," he said in a statement.

In a statement sent to Consumer Ally, McDonald's spokeswoman Bridget Coffing said: "We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food. We stand on our 30 year track record of providing a fun experience for kids and families at McDonald's. We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals. We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet."

The fast food giant in July blasted CSPI when it threatened to sue McDonald's, contending that the fast food giant's practice of giving away toys with its children's meals violates consumer protection laws in California, Massachusetts, Texas, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

Just last month, San Francisco put nutritional guidelines in place that govern how much salt, sugar and fat can be in children's meals if restaurants want to continue to be able to offer incentives like toys, games and concert tickets. Restaurants, including McDonald's, vehemently opposed the measure, which takes effect in about a year.

McDonald's said in the past that a majority of children's meals are eaten at home, not at restaurants.

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