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Lawsuit Over McDonald's Happy Meal Toys?

A nutrition watchdog group is threatening McDonald’s with a lawsuit unless it stops using toys to promote Happy Meals.

The nonprofit group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said that using toys to lure small children into McDonald’s is unfair and deceptive marketing which is illegal under consumer protection laws in Massachusetts, Texas, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and California. The group served McDonald’s a notice of its intent to sue in the states where they might file the lawsuit.

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. “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.”

In a notice letter to McDonald’s vice chairman, CEO, and president Jim Skinner, and McDonald’s USA president Jan Fields, Gardner wrote, “McDonald’s marketing has the effect of conscripting America’s children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers, causing them to pester their parents to bring them to McDonald’s.” The letter gives McDonald’s 30 days to agree to stop the practice before a suit is filed.

In 2007, McDonald’s pledged it would not market foods with more than 600 calories and high fat and sugar content to kids. But, according to CSPI, of the 24 possible Happy Meal combinations that McDonald’s features on its web site, all exceed 430 calories (430 is one-third of the 1,300- calorie recommended daily intake for children 4 to 8 years old).

In May, the Santa Clara County, Calif., Board of Supervisors voted in favor of killing the Happy Meal because it lured children into ordering high-calorie, high-sodium, high-fat meals. The ordinance prevents McDonald’s and other restaurants from including toys or other kid-oriented incentives with the purchase of unhealthy meals.

Later this year, the Federal Trade Commission will release a set of voluntary standards for food marketers. According to a 2008 report from the FTC, food companies spend more than $350 million on toy giveaways each year.

What do you think? Should McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants be barred from using toys to get kids to buy junk food?

Photo: Jeff Cronin

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