On Wednesday, A Washington-based consumer advocacy group threatened to file a lawsuit against McDonald’s. They claimed that through its Happy Meals, the fast food chain ‘unfairly and deceptively’ sells toys to children. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, using toys to promote “Happy Meals” represents unfair and deceptive marketing and is illegal under various state consumer protection laws.
CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner said in a statement, “McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children“. He also added, “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.” CSPI says the suit would be filed in state court. The center has not settled on a state yet, but the group believes the toys in Happy Meals violate state consumer protection laws in Massachusetts, Texas, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and California. The letter gives McDonald’s 30 days to cease and desist before filing suit“.
McDonald’s says it disagrees with the advocacy group, and that Happy Meal offerings can be wholesome. “We couldn’t disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI),” said William Whitman, McDonald’s V.P. of Communications, in a statement. By arguing with CSPI’s claims, McDonald’s clarify that they use only the finest ingredients and primarily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNugget Happy Meal that includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and 1% low-fat white milk. The chain has sold more than 100 million Happy Meals with Apple Dippers since 2008, and in 2009 alone it served 31 million gallons of milk.
A CSPI study found that 9 out of 10 times, a child or adult who orders a Happy Meal without specifying Apple Dippers is given French fries. Children still receive toys even if they order a Happy Meal with a cheeseburger, French fries, and a Sprite. Such a meal gives a child age 4 to 8 years old half a day’s calories, two days’ worth of saturated fat, two days’ worth of sugar, and a large dose of salt. Gardner wrote in the CSPI’s warning letter to McDonald’s, “Eating Happy Meals promotes eating habits that are virtually assured to undermine children’s health“. Nutrition aside, the CSPI suggests that McDonald’s marketing to children is “predatory and wrong” because young children are not “developmentally advanced enough” to resist the marketing.
McDonald’s is a prominent member of the Council for Better Business Bureau’s voluntary initiative to address children’s well-being, noted by Whitman. He defends Happy Meals and notes that since 2008, U.S. customers have purchased 100 million of the meals with Apple Dippers. In 2009, he says, McDonald’s served 31 million gallons of milk which is three times more than the amount of milk served in 2004.
In 2007, McDonald’s pledged not to promote children’s meals that contained more than 600 calories, as well as certain percentages of fat and sugar, which include the meal Whitman cited and another offering a hamburger. But toys, the CSPI argues, are a powerful temptation, and included with all Happy Meals. Of the 24 possible Happy Meal combinations listed on McDonald’s website, all exceed 430 calories (430 is one-third of the 1,300- calorie recommended daily intake for children 4 to 8 years old). A Happy Meal packed with a cheeseburger, French fries and Sprite contains half a day’s calories and saturated fat (640 and 7 grams, respectively), about 940 milligrams of sodium, and about two days’ worth of sugar (35 grams) — and a toy often related to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Most of children love burgers, fries, and soda which cause obesity, diabetes, or other diet-related diseases over the course of their lifetimes, says the CSPI. “… Regardless of the nutritional quality of what’s being sold, the practice of tempting kids with toys is inherently deceptive,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a statement. “I’m sure that industry’s defenders will blame parents for not saying ‘no’ to their children. Parents do bear much of the responsibility, but multi-billion-dollar corporations make parents’ job nearly impossible by giving away toys and bombarding kids with slick advertising.”
Kathryn Montgomery, professor of communication at American University and an expert on media and children, said in a statement, “We know from scientific research that young children and even older ones — do not have the ability to understand how marketing has been designed to influence them“, “In the era of digital marketing, these vulnerabilities are magnified even further. McDonald’s use of these techniques raises troubling questions, for health professionals, parents, and policy makers.”
In recent years, the group has filed dozens of lawsuits against food companies. In the year 2006, a lawsuit against Kellogg prompted the company to agree to a settlement raising the nutritional value of cereals and snacks it markets to children. And its suit against KFC over the use of partly hydrogenated vegetable oil — making KFC chicken high in unhealthy trans fat — was dropped when KFC phased out the oils, making its product trans-fat free. McDonald’s, which in a statement objected to CSPI’s portrayal of their business practices, recently launched Shrek-themed Happy Meals aimed at encouraging kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy and fruit juice. But CSPI says that kids still are given fries 93% of the time with those meals.