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December 14, 2010

Consumer Watchdog Group Sues McDonald's Over Children's Meals

A U.S. nutrition watchdog group has filed a lawsuit against the giant American fast-food chain McDonald's for including toys in its children's menu. The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest believes it is illegal to use toys to entice children to eat fast food. The suit comes amid reports of rising obesity rates worldwide, and raises questions about corporate responsibility and parental control.

McDonald's calls it a "Happy Meal." The usual menu includes a hamburger or deep-fried chicken nuggets, French fries, and a soda. There are healthier options, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, says the meals contain amounts of calories, fat, sugar and sodium that are unhealthy for young children.  

But that is not why the Washington-based activist group is suing. The case is about the little plastic toys that come packaged inside every Happy Meal.  

Ads for a recent meal featuring characters from the movie "Shrek" caught the attention of Monet Parham, a health educator in the state of California. Or, rather, they caught the attention of her six-year-old daughter, who, Parham says, pleaded with her to collect all the toys.

"I explained to her that the characters in the meals change every week. And she, of course, followed with the logical question, even for a six-year-old, which is, 'Well, mommy, then can I get a Happy Meal every week?,'" Parham said.

Parham said no because she thinks the fast-food meals are unhealthful and only stops at McDonald's occasionally. But, as any parent knows, that was not the end of it. Her daughter kept on asking.

CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson says McDonald's is deliberately targeting young children because the company knows the influence children have over their parents. He quotes the author of a recent article in a fast-food industry trade publication.

"'The average kid asks his parent for something nine times before the parent gives in. What's a mother to do under this assault?' That was the former advertising director of McDonalds. They know what they're doing," Jacobson said.

But Jacobson says young children don't know when someone is trying to sell them something. That's illegal because, as CSPI asserts in its lawsuit, "Advertising that is not understood to be advertising is inherently deceptive."

So, with the group's backing, Parham is suing McDonald's under California consumer-protection laws. "As a parent, I'd really like to make food choices with my children free from the persuasion that comes with the inclusion of toys. I want McDonald's to be a responsible corporate partner and stop including the toys with their children's meals," she said.

But forcing McDonald's to stop giving away toys is the wrong answer to children's pestering, says Patrick Basham director of the Democracy Institute, a policy research center in Washington, DC.

"The solution lies with the parents exerting some kind of discipline and control over their children, rather than the government, for example, or the legal system deciding what children can and cannot do or what they can and cannot be exposed to," Basham.

But even if you disagree with him on that point, Basham says, "There's the small problem of the evidence. And by that I mean, there is no reliable evidence that kids who go to McDonalds or Burger King or have junk food a few times a week have a great[er] propensity for a weight problem than do kids who don't," he said.

For its part, McDonald's says in a written statement, quote, "parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet."

The company says it is proud of its Happy Meals and intends to vigorously defend its brand, its reputation and its food.