Happy Meal ban: No toys for you!

Happy Meal ban: San Francisco restaurants can't package toys with unhealthy meals, says Board of Supervisors. Happy Meals either have to become healthier or lose the toys.

Photo illustration / Mario Anzuoni / Reuters / File
These McDonald's Happy Meals, seen in Los Angeles on June 22, came with toy watches based on Donkey and Puss in Boots from 'Shrek Forever After.' Nuggets get 53 percent of their calories from fat, and fries get 45 percent, so soon neither of these items, alone or packaged together as a Happy Meal, will be allowed to come with a toy, under a new San Francisco city ordinance known as the Happy Meal ban.

Bye-bye, teenie beanies.

In a move to slow skyrocketing childhood obesity rates, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to stop toy giveaways with unhealthy meals. Though the ordinance didn’t mention McDonald’s by name, the Happy Meal, beloved by kids for 31 years, is the obvious target.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has said he’ll veto it, but it passed 8-3, meaning that it can override a veto. It will likely take effect in December 2011.

The ordinance doesn’t exactly ban the toys. It just says that they can’t be included with meals that flunk certain nutritional requirements for fat, calories, and sodium levels – and yes, Happy Meals are fatty and calorie-laden.

“The ordinance is very clear. We don't say that you can't hand out toys, but we set out certain nutritional guidelines that have to be met before the toys can be given out,” said Ken Yeager, president of the Santa Clara County board of supervisors, about a similar ordinance that passed in Santa Clara County six months ago.

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” said Stephen Gardner, litigation director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit health research and advocacy group based out of Washington, DC. In June, CSPI threatened to sue McDonald’s if they didn’t stop using toys to woo children. “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity – all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”

In their response to CSPI, McDonald's cried foul, pointing out their long history of supporting Ronald McDonald's houses and arguing they had popular opinion on their side. "At McDonald's, we listen to what our customers tell us," wrote McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner in a statement. "For the past 30 years they have told us – again, overwhelmingly – that they approve of our Happy Meal program. Three decades provide a lot of listening time."

San Francisco skipped the courts, instead going through the legislative Board of Supervisors. The ordinance, as proposed, said restaurants will be allowed to offer free toys, trading cards, admissions tickets, or other treats only with meals containing fewer than 600 calories, fewer than 640 milligrams of sodium, less than 35 percent of calories from fat, and less than 10 percent saturated fat. The meal must also include at least a half-cup of fruits or veggies, and can’t come with fatty or sugary drinks.

"We are extremely disappointed with the decision. It’s not what our customers want," responds Danya Proud, McDonald's spokesperson. "Parents tell us it's their right and responsibility – not the government's – to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children.... Getting a toy with a kid's meal is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's.”

In response to the pressure from CSPI and Santa Clara, McDonald’s has begun providing healthier options, like apple slices with caramel sauce (called “Apple Dippers”) and low-fat milk. Today, the most nutritious Happy Meal, with chicken nuggets, apple slices, and milk, has 390 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 560 milligrams of sodium, according to the published nutritional information. Even that option flunks the San Francisco test, though, because 37 percent of the calories come from fat.

At the other end of the Happy Meal spectrum is the cheeseburger Happy Meal with milk and fries, clocking in at 780 calories, 33.5 grams of fat, and 1145 milligrams of sodium – twice as much of everything as the chicken-and-apple option.

Though the apple slices are available at every McDonald's, you have to request them specifically. The default option is still the fries, with 11 times the calories and 19 grams of fat. A CSPI study found that since most parents don't express a preference, 93 percent of Happy Meals are still sold with fries.

“In many of our neighborhoods, particularly poor Hispanic neighborhoods, there are nothing but fast food restaurants,” Mr. Yeager told NPR. “And so, many parents go there on their way home. It's cheap. It's quick. And we're finding that the childhood obesity rates in those neighborhoods are just continuing to skyrocket. So, if you look at overall the effect that the industry is having on kids you see that it's being - it's very detrimental.”

Customers have bought about 20 billion McDonald’s Happy Meals since they were first introduced in 1979. The most popular toys in McDonald’s history were the Teenie Beanie Babies: more than 100 million were given away with Happy Meals. If McDonald's wants to stay in the toy distribution business – and keep using toys to attract their smallest patrons – they'll need to start pairing them with Healthy Meals.

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