A supersized attack on McDonald's Happy Meal toys

Concern about childhood obesity is driving calls to ban toys that have kids clamoring for a McDonald's Happy Meal. But it is not government's role to decide the dinner menu. Consumers have the power to demand more "healthy" choices, and food producers and retailers are responding.

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    Nikko Cassidy-Lopez bites into a Happy Meal cheeseburger at a McDonald's in Modesto, Calif.
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Parents are unhappy about the attack on McDonald’s Happy Meals for kids.

Because of concerns about childhood obesity, a US consumer group wants McDonald’s to stop using toys that lure kids to these meals. In April, Santa Clara, Calif., banned toys for any meal over 485 calories. (Happy Meal calorie counts range from 390 to 580, according to the McDonald’s nutrition web site.) Now San Francisco is mulling a similar ban.

(For a Monitor news story on the Happy Meal controversy, click here.)

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McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner, however, says phone calls and web comments are running overwhelmingly against a ban – with 9 out of 10 customers disagreeing with the idea.

“Parents, in particular, strongly believe they have the right and responsibility to decide what's best for their children…It really is that simple,” Mr. Skinner said in a written statement July 6.

I’m not surprised by the public reaction. Government’s role in food is to ensure safety and to help consumers choose wisely. It must properly test, inspect, and inform through labeling and education campaigns. It should not decide on menus for restaurant customers. That’s for the customers to choose.

Two things need to be remembered here. One is that childhood obesity is a complex problem that extends far beyond the Happy Meal. Ubiquitous “junk food” or “fast food” is partly to blame, but so are inadequate parenting, sedentary childhoods, and busy family schedules.

The other point is consumer power. Consumers want more “healthy” choices and they’re getting them – at local farmers markets, in the aisles of mainstream grocery stores, and yes, even at fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s.

I was reminded of this on the drive home from my vacation last week. At the Thurmont, Md., exit on Interstate 270 the choices were KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and a family restaurant. My husband and I didn’t have time for table service, and settled on the golden arches, which long ago branched out from burgers, fries, and sugary sodas.

For my tastes, the chain makes a pretty good Southwest salad with chicken. For parents, you can order apple "dippers" instead of fries with your child's Happy Meal, and apple juice or low-fat milk instead of a soda.

It’s your choice. Let's keep it that way.

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