Shrek Glasses: McDonald's Recall Adds to Fast Food's PR Woes

Shrek Glasses: McDonald's Recall Adds to Fast Food's PR Issues
Shrek Glasses: McDonald's Recall Adds to Fast Food's PR Issues

McDonald's (MCD) draws young children and their parents like moths to a flame. But the massive Shrek glass recall announced Friday underscores that there are downsides to the American love affair with the Golden Arches.

After an anonymous tip to U.S. Rep Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), federal regulators discovered that the glasses promoting the film Shrek Forever After, the latest installment in the Shrek series, contained cadmium, a carcinogen linked to kidney, lung, intestinal and bone damage. The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of 12 million glasses Friday.

In a statement, McDonald's said it was conducting the recall as a precaution. "The CPSC has confirmed that the glassware have far less cadmium than the children's metal jewelry that the CPSC has previously recalled," according to the company.

Investors appear confident that the largest restaurant chain can easily absorb the recall costs. Shares are down less than 2% in early trading, in line with the rest of the stock market, and are up 8.7% this year. But the negative attention from the Shrek glasses is the last thing McDonald's needs as its menu and marketing practices increasingly become battlegrounds in the fight against childhood obesity.

Which Is More Unhealthy: The Glasses or the Food

McDonald's sold the Shrek glasses for $2 each as part of the latest in its never-ending array of movie promotions. Though these items apparently weren't sold with Happy Meals, those high-fat, high-calorie combination platters promoted for children, the movie is being marketed to kids through other means, such as the Happy Meal website. Admittedly, McDonald's does offer Shrek-themed Happy Meals that are intended to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Though McDonald's repeatedly speaks about its promotion of healthy lifestyles, nutritionists aren't buying it. According to the Center for Science and the Public Interest, nearly all of the potential Happy Meal combinations are unhealthy. Activists decry the way companies tie children's movie marketing to promotions of food choices that aren't nutritious.

The stakes are high: The U.S. has a large and rising rate of childhood obesity. Meanwhile, restaurants sell U.S. children about 1.2 billion meals accompanied by toys each year, according to the latest data from the Federal Trade Commission. Children's TV icon Sesame Street, quietly ended its relationship with McDonald's early in 2010. The show has long promoted healthy eating habits.

"According to the Institute of Medicine, TV commercials affect children's food choices, food purchase requests, diets and health," the CSPI says. "And the mere act of watching commercial television is linked to obesity."

Action on the Local Level

Officials in Santa Clara, Calif., recently took matters into their own hands and banned restaurants from using toys as premiums for the purchase of foods that are high in calories and fat. Restaurants were granted a 90-day grace period to offer alternative measures that might meet the goals of the ordinance. If none are created, the law, the first of its kind, will go into effect.

More local governments are making similar moves. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently got 16 food companies to voluntarily reduce their salt use. The idea of a soda tax is also gaining traction, though an effort by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to pass one failed.

There is an obesity crisis in America. (Sadly, I am a statistic.) There's a rush now to find villains to blame for it, and McDonald's makes a tempting target. But experts say that trying to find individual reasons such as Happy Meal toys for America's bulging waistlines is a mistake, because it oversimplifies a complex problem. Parents need to take responsibility for what goes into their children's mouths -- and their own.