McDonald's (MCD) may be forced to defend itself again as a public interest group prepares to open up a new battlefront in the war against childhood obesity.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that often finds itself at odds with businesses, said Tuesday that it will sue the world's largest restaurant chain unless it stops using toys to promote Happy Meals within 30 days. Such notice is required under the laws of states where the CSPI might file its lawsuit. The CSPI, though, hopes to avoid a court battle and reach a settlement with the company.
The CSPI lawsuit comes less than six months after officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., voted to ban Happy Meal toys unless McDonald's met certain nutritional guidelines, along with similar giveaways offered by rival fast-food chains. Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled over the past 30 years, and some experts argue that McDonald's and other purveyors of cheap, calorie-rich food bear some of the blame.
Only the Finest Ingredients
"By advertising that Happy Meals include toys, McDonald's unfairly and deceptively markets directly to children," wrote CSPI Litigation Director Stephen Gardner in a letter to McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner and McDonald's USA President Jan Skinner. "When McDonald's bombards children with advertisements or other marketing for Happy Meals with toys, many children will pester their parents to take them to McDonald's."
McDonald's rejects CSPI's claims, arguing that it uses 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.
"Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's," the company said in a press release.
Just Say "No"
Part of the problem with McDonald's logic is that many kids still wind up ordering unhealthy Happy Meals, which account for most of the available choices, according to CSPI. From my perspective (as a parent), the activists seem to be excusing parents from their duties to tell their children "no."
McDonald's likely will put up a fierce fight against the CSPI, arguing that its rights to promote Happy Meals are protected under the First Amendment. This case won't be settled any time soon.