McDonald’s faces lawsuit over Happy Meals

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Weeks after a Silicon Valley county became the first in the nation to ban toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals and other food promotions aimed at children, a public health watchdog group called on the fast food giant to remove the playthings from all its meal packages.

Citing toys aimed at promoting the latest “Shrek” movie, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that the plastic promotions lure children into McDonald’s restaurants where they are then likely to order food that is too high in calories, fat and salt.

The organization on Tuesday served the fast food giant with a letter expressing its intent to sue if toys are not removed. The letter is legally required in several states, including California, before lawsuits can be brought under consumer protection statutes.

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” Stephen Gardner, litigation director for the advocacy group said in a statement. “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity.”

McDonald’s disagreed strongly with that characterization, saying that its meals were “right-sized for kids” and that it offered healthful choices. Toys, said spokesman William Whitman, are “just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald’s.”

The chain’s menu now includes the option of apple slices instead of French fries, he said. And children can order milk or juice with their Happy Meals rather than soda. Since the apple slices, called “Apple Dippers” by the company because they include a caramel sauce for dipping, were introduced in 2008, customers have ordered them more than 100 million times in the U.S., Whitman said.

In April, Santa Clara County supervisors won praise from nutrition advocates but ridicule from many conservatives when they voted to ban toy promotions from fast food meals sold in unincorporated parts of the county. The supervisors gave fast food chains 90 days to voluntarily comply before the ordinance became effective.

Opponents of toys in fast food meals say the promotions are feeding the nation’s obesity epidemic by making unhealthy food seem more desirable to children. But the food industry says that healthier choices are now available to children — and urges parents to take responsibility for what their kids order.