The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed notice of its intent to sue McDonald's through state courts if the chain continues to use toy giveaways in marketing Happy Meals.
The consumer nutrition watchdog group contends that the practice constitutes "unfair and deceptive marketing, and is illegal under various state consumer protection laws."
CSPI announced that it has filed notice of its intent to sue in several states that require such notification before a suit can be filed.
In its announcement, the nonprofit criticized many Happy Meals as being high in calories and in some cases high in saturated fat, sodium and/or sugar. However, CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson stressed that "regardless of the nutritional quality of what's being sold, the practice of tempting kids with toys is inherently deceptive."
Jacobson acknowledged that "parents do bear much of the responsibility" for what their children consume, but maintained that "multibillion-dollar corporations make parents' job nearly impossible by giving away toys and bombarding kids with slick advertising."
Research conducted in 2008 by CSPI found that the great majority of children's meals options offered at the time by the nation's top 13 restaurant chains were high in calories -- specifically, that 93% of 1,474 possible choices at the chains exceeded 430 calories, or one-third of an entire day's calories for children age four to eight, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine.
Of the 24 possible Happy Meal combinations currently on McDonald's Web site, all exceed 430 calories, according to CSPI. A cheeseburger/fries/Sprite combo contains, by IOM's guidelines, a half day's calories (640) and saturated fat (7 grams), 940 mgs of sodium and about two days' sugar content, the organization added.
In 2007, McDonald's released its pledge, as a member of the industry's voluntary Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, to direct 100% of national advertising to children under 12 to furthering the goal of "healthy dietary choices" on its menu (defined by the chain as those under 600 calories and no more than specified percentages of fat and sugar). McDonald's also pledged to limit use of licensed characters to the promotion of healthier choices.
McDonald's is currently offering toy figures tied in with Dreamworks' "Shrek Forever After" movie with Happy Meal purchases, and has also been running an "All Family Shrek Rewards Program." (CSPI's actions have no relation to the Shrek collectible glasses that McDonald's was selling until June 9, when it issued a voluntary recall/refund because of Consumer Product Safety Commission concerns about cadmium content in paint on the glassware's exterior.)
McDonald's mid-May announcement of its Shrek Happy Meals promotion stated that the promotion is intended to "encourage kids to 'Shrek Out' their Happy Meals around the world with menu options like fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and fruit juices" -- an extension of a healthy foods promotion initiative launched by the chain three years ago, in conjunction with the last Shrek movie.
"This new Shrek-themed promotion, focusing on the great taste and appeal of fruits and vegetables, reflects McDonald's ongoing commitment to kids and families and making these foods fun for kids to eat," the May release stated. "McDonald's is broadening the approach by delivering the 'great taste' on Shrek packaging, point-of-purchase marketing materials at kids' eye-level, TV commercials, online and in social media."
However, CSPI maintains that while Shrek "may appear on packaging for low-fat milk and Apple Dippers," Happy Meals come with French fries 93% of the time. "The brief glimpses of actual food in McDonald's youth-directed advertising show Apple Dippers and low-fat milk as part of either a four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal or a Hamburger Happy Meal [two of the meals that fall within the chain's pledge guidelines]," said CSPI. "But toys, a powerful temptation for kids, are included with all Happy Meals, regardless of nutrition."
In late April, Santa Clara County, Calif. passed an ordinance preventing McDonald's and other restaurants from including toys or other incentives appealing to children with the purchase of any meal containing more than 485 calories, more than 600 mgs of sodium and high levels of fat and sugar. However, the county's board delayed implementation for 90 days to provide restaurants with time to create a voluntary program to improve the nutritional value of children's meals.
CSPI noted that the Federal Trade Commission, which estimated in 2008 that food companies spend more than $350 million per year on toy giveaways, may also "have something to say about toy promotions" when it releases its voluntary standards for food marketers later this year.
Asked why CSPI has chosen potentially to sue McDonald's but not Burger King and other chains that also offer toy tie-ins, a CSPI spokesperson said in an email that "the short answer is that McDonald's is far and away the industry leader in this particular practice, and where McDonald's goes, its competitors tend to follow. That said, Burger King's use of toys to lure children is similarly unfair and deceptive."
McDonald's did not immediately respond to a request for comment on CSPI's announcement.