Consumer Group To McDonald's: Drop The Happy Meal Toys, Or We'll Sue

Is a McDonald's Happy Meal still a Happy Meal if there's no toy inside?

If a consumer group with a history of going after food makers who advertise to kids has its way, we might find out.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest declared today it would sue McDonald's if it doesn't stop marketing its wares with toys to young children.

"Not only does the practice mobilize 'pester power,' but it also imprints on developing minds brand loyalty for McDonald's," the group's letter to McDonald's says.

And those aren't happy results for kids, CSPI says. "Because most of the company's options (for young children and others) are of poor nutritional quality, eating Happy Meals promotes eating habits that are virtually assured to undermine children's health," the letter says.

In other words, they're making our kids bug us to go there through toy tie-ins to the latest movies, and then they're hooking them on food that's high in fat, salt, sugar and calories.

The latest movie marketing gambit -- tied to the movie Shrek Forever After -- was tarnished by a recall of about 12 million glasses over potential health risks from cadmium. But McDonald's says the Shrek-themed Happy Meals aim to foster healthier eating, with choices that include fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.

And there's growing evidence that characters used in marketing strongly affects childrens' food preferences.

But some people say CSPI, a.k.a the "Food Police" is going too far, and taking away the role of parents.

When Santa Clara County, Calif., passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance in April, banning toys in fast food meals that are high in calories, Supervisor Donald Gage voted against it.

"If you can't control a 3-year-old child for a toy, God save you when they get to be teenagers," Gage told the Los Angeles Times.

For its part, McDonald's points out that it has added healthier options to its burgers and fries-dominated menu, including salads for grown ups and apple slices for kids.

But while McDonald's website lists 24 different Happy Meal combinations, CSPI notes that all of them exceed the target of a 430 calorie lunch for kids aged 4 to 8. And in a small study the group conducted, French fries were the default side dish for a Happy Meal 93 percent of the time.

By the way, if you go McDonald's dedicated Happy Meal website, there's a fine-print disclaimer near the top of the landing page that reads: "Hey kids, this is advertising."

Update: In a statement, McDonald's said it "couldn't disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices by the Center for Science in the Public Interest." The company affirmed its pride in Happy Meals and said, "Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's."

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And here's something a kid might see while watching TV.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Once upon a time, not so far away, there lived a camp of hungry ogres. One night, they saw an unbelievable sight: a Happy Meal.

MONTAGNE: That's right, a McDonald's Happy Meal. But a consumer group is trying to take the happy out of the Happy Meal - or at least, the toy. NPR's April Fulton has more.

APRIL FULTON: Michael Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says food marketing to children is out of control.

Mr. MICHAEL JACOBSON (Center for Science in the Public Interest): The very practice of dangling a toy, or other premium, to get kids to pester their parents to go into the restaurant and buy food is unethical - and, we believe, illegal.

FULTON: He says McDonald's spends billions of dollars marketing popular toys to kids who can't evaluate marketing the way adults do. And that shapes the way they eat - bringing them into fast-food restaurants, where they are bombarded with unhealthy food choices.

For example, he says, if a child orders a small soda...

Mr. JACOBSON: The child will get at least twice as much sugar as the federal government advises in an entire day.

FULTON: Jacobson isn't the only one fighting Happy Meals. Several cities are considering bans on toys in the meals. Santa Clara County, California, has actually done it. They banned toys from meals that don't meet federal nutrition guidelines for fat, salt, sugar and calories.

County Supervisor Ken Yeager sponsored the law.

Mr. KEN YEAGER (County Supervisor, Santa Clara County, California): You would think that these restaurants would want to meet those nutritional standards anyway. They're making these kids fat.

FULTON: He says one out of four kids in the county are either overweight or obese, and that being enticed to eat unhealthy foods is part of the problem.

Outside a busy McDonald's in downtown Washington at noon, the smell of fresh, hot French fries is so tempting. Sarlita Paradlow(ph) of Washington says she brings her 2-year-old goddaughter here a lot.

Does she like the toys or the food better, you think?

Ms. SARLITA PARADLOW: I think the toys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FULTON: The little girl is wearing the latest Happy Meal toy - a plastic watch featuring the big, green ogre from the movie "Shrek."

Justin Wilson says lawsuits and bans on Happy Meal toys go too far.

Mr. JUSTIN WILSON (Center for Consumer Freedom): Parents who care about these things can always just say, I want a Happy Meal without the toy.

FULTON: Wilson's from the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group that promotes consumer choice and takes some money from the food industry. Kids should have treats in moderation, he says, or they can choose low-fat milk and apple slices over burgers and fries.

Mr. WILSON: An enterprising parent can walk out of a McDonald's with a Happy Meal with 380 calories.

FULTON: But that's not easy to do, says Michael Jacobson of CSPI. Most of the Happy Meal combos available, he says, would give kids about half their daily calories in just one meal.

A McDonald's spokesman wouldn't go on tape. But in a statement, the company says it's proud of its Happy Meals and that getting a toy is just part of the fun.

April Fulton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.