Happy Meals: Does McDonald's lure kids unfairly?

Happy Meals have been a part of McDonald's menu for three decades. Now, San Francisco is considering a ban on the toys in Happy Meals.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Two McDonald's Happy Meals with toy watches fashioned after the characters Donkey and Puss in Boots from the movie "Shrek Forever After" are pictured in Los Angeles June 22. A U.S. consumer group wants McDonald's to stop using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants. San Francisco is considering a Happy Meal ban.

A bottled water ban? OK. No more regular Coke and Pepsi in government vending machines? All right, if we have to. But no more Happy Meals?

That's the ban that San Francisco is mulling over. Some city supervisors say the toys in McDonald's Happy Meals unfairly lure children to eat unhealthy food.

McDonald's has launched a spirited defense of the iconic meals, which have been part of the chain's menu since 1979, more than 30 years. The meals are a way to draw families to its restaurants, a key demographic for a global chain hungry for customers.

But the Happy Meal is running into increasing opposition as worries rise about childhood obesity, heightened perhaps by First Lady Michelle Obama's push to raise awareness on the issue.

In April, for example, Santa Clara, Calif., banned restaurants in its unincorporated areas from offering toys with any meal that has more than 485 calories. There are also limits on sodium. The rules effectively ruled out Happy Meals.

In June, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a watchdog group, threatened in a letter (.pdf) to sue the fast-food chain over the use of toys. "Using toys to lure small children into McDonald’s is unfair and deceptive marketing and is illegal under various state consumer protection laws," the Washington-based group said in a statement.

Now, San Francisco's suggested ban is getting attention – and stirring a backlash from critics, who call it unwanted interference by a nanny government. Parents should make meal decisions for their children, not government, they say.

McDonald's CEO, Jim Skinner, argued along the same lines in his written response to CSPI: "Our customer websites and phone lines at McDonald's are also busy, with more than nine out of ten customers disagreeing with your agenda. Parents, in particular, strongly believe they have the right and responsibility to decide what's best for their children, not CSPI," he wrote.

"It seems that you purposefully skewed your evaluation of our Happy Meals by putting them in the context of a highly conservative 1,300 calorie per day requirement," he added. "I'm sure you know this category generally applies to the youngest and most sedentary children."

In May, McDonald's reached a milestone. Exactly 70 years ago, the original McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard, opened their first restaurant about 350 miles south of Santa Clara in San Bernardino, Calif. That means the Happy Meal has been part of the McDonald's menu for nearly half the restaurant's history.

Today, McDonald's has more than 30,000 restaurants in 117 nations. No word yet on whether San Bernardino – or Stuttgart – want to ban the Happy Meal, too.

(See the video below. Translation from the German: "The fun starts here.")

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