A lawsuit to get toys out of Happy Meals?

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Less than two months after a California county voted to ban toys from children’s meals at fast food restaurants, the chain known for the Hamburgler and Ronald McDonald may face a lawsuit over the the trinkets it tosses into Happy Meals. Public health research and advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), sent a letter (PDF) to McDonald’s yesterday denouncing the practice of marketing unhealthy meals to children with the incentive of toys as illegal, and threatening to bring a lawsuit if McDonald’s doesn’t stop the practice.

In the statement about the potential law suit, the CSPI says that McDonald’s has skirted the true issue at the heart of its 2007 pledge not to advertise any meals containing 600 calories or more to children. Ads aimed at kids often feature apple slices or other healthy options available in Happy Meals, the letter points out, but in a CSPI study of 44 McDonald’s locations, 93% of the time customers were not asked what side items they wanted in the meal, and the default was always french fries. Beyond that, the CSPI letter points out that not a single Happy Meal meets basic nutrition and calorie recommendations. As Stephen Gardner, litigation director for CSPI writes in the letter addressed to the CEO of McDonald’s Corporation and president of McDonald’s USA:

“McDonald’s practice of dangling toys in front of children is illegal, regardless of what meal the child eventually gets. Not only does the practice mobilize “pester power,” but it also imprints on developing minds brand loyalty for McDonald’s. Because most of the company’s options (for young children and others) are of poor nutritional quality, eating Happy Meals promotes eating habits that are virtually assured to undermine children’s health.”

McDonald’s spokesman William Whitman objected to the CSPI portrayal of the company’s marketing practices as “predatory and wrong.” Speaking with the Los Angeles Times he said that Happy Meals are the right size for children and that toys are “just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald’s.”

Ronald McDonald has been having a bumpy month. Before the World Cup started, an international cancer charity criticized FIFA for choosing unhealthy sponsors such as McDonald’s for the world’s most-watched sporting event, and just days later McDonald’s had to recall 12 million glasses promoting the latest Shrek film after they learned they contained the toxic metal cadmium.