A nutrition watchdog group will sue McDonald’s if the fast-food chain continues to use toys to promote Happy Meals. According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), using toys to lure small children into McDonald’s is unfair and deceptive marketing and is illegal under various state consumer protection laws. Last week, CSPI served McDonald’s with notice of its intent to sue, fulfilling a legal requirement of several states in which CSPI might bring the lawsuit.
“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” says 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.”
Of the 24 possible Happy Meal combinations that McDonald’s describes on its website, all exceed 430 calories (430 is one-third of the 1,300-calorie recommended daily intake for children 4 to 8 years old).
McDonald’s disagreed strongly with this characterization, saying that its meals are “right-sized for kids” and that it offers healthful choices. Toys, says spokesman William Whitman, are “just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald’s.”
CSPI’s notice letter says that McDonald’s toy-related promotions violate state consumer protection laws in Massachusetts, Texas, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and California. CSPI’s letter gives McDonald’s 30 days to agree to stop the practice before a suit is filed.
CSPI’s litigation unit has taken on food marketing to children before with Kellogg’s and KFC. Both companies reached settlement agreements with the advocacy group. Kellogg’s now only advertises to young audiences if a serving of the food has no more than 200 calories, zero grams of trans fat and no more than two grams of saturated fat, no more than 230 milligrams of sodium and no more than 12 grams of sugar. KFC agreed to phase out partially hydrogenated oils and KFC chicken is now trans-fat-free.