McDonald's skirts Happy Meal law by charging 10 cents for toys

Beginning Thursday, it will cost an extra dime in San Francisco to get a toy in a Happy Meal  at McDonald's — a move one county supervisor called a marketing ploy prompted by the new law.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
A Happy Meal is seen at a McDonald's restaurant in San Francisco. McDonald's restaurants in San Francisco found a way to comply with a city law that bans free toy giveaways with Happy Meals: charge 10 cents for the toys. San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to prohibit fast food restaurants from including toys with children's meals that don't meet certain nutritional guidelines.

A new city law aimed at making fast food for kids follow nutritional guidelines won't be making Happy Meals healthier, just more expensive — if you want a toy.

Beginning Thursday, it will cost an extra dime in San Francisco to get a toy in a Happy Meal — a move one county supervisor called a marketing ploy prompted by the new law.

San Francisco was the first major U.S. city to prohibit fast-food restaurants from including toy giveaways with children's meals that don't meet nutritional guidelines for sodium, calories and fat.

Eric Mar, the San Francisco supervisor who sponsored the ordinance, called the 10-cent charge a "marketing ploy," but said he doesn't plan to make any changes in the ordinance to address the tactic.

The goal of the law was not to micromanage fast-food chains but to raise awareness about the nutritional content of the food, he said, pointing to McDonald's switch to apples and smaller portions of french fries inHappy Meals as an example of the success of the law.

"We feel that our efforts to create healthier options forced the industry to acknowledge their role in childhood obesity," he said about the law that also goes into effect Thursday.

Scott Rodrick, who owns 10 of the 19 McDonald's franchises in the city, said the 10-cent charge was intended to adhere to the letter of the law while giving consumers what they want.

All those dimes will go to help build a new Ronald McDonald House to accommodate families of sick children at the new University of California, San Francisco hospital now under construction.

The law, which followed similar legislation in nearby Santa Clara County, requires fruits and vegetables to be served with each meal that comes with a toy.

Supporters of the law say the toy giveaways made children clamor for the meals and contributed to high childhood obesity rates. Opponents call it government regulation run amok and an intrusion into people's private choices.

McDonald's has made changes to improve the nutritional value of its Happy Meals. Since September,Happy Meals in California come with apples and smaller french-fry portions. Although the moves still don't meet San Francisco's strict requirements, Rodrick said it's an indication of the company's commitment to providing healthier food options.

All McDonald's in the United States will offer Happy Meals with apples and smaller french-fry portions by March 2012, said Ashlee Yingling, a spokeswoman for the company.

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