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Group may sue over Happy Meal toys

A consumer advocacy group threatened to file a lawsuit against McDonald's Tuesday, charging that the fast food chain 'unfairly and deceptively' markets toys to children.
Image: McDonald's Happy Meal with toy
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is hoping that McDonald’s will negotiate on its marketing practices.Business Wire / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Washington-based consumer advocacy group threatened to file a lawsuit against McDonald's Tuesday, charging that the fast food chain 'unfairly and deceptively' markets toys to children through its Happy Meals.

"McDonald's marketing has the effect of conscripting America's children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers, causing them to nag their parents to bring them to McDonald's," Stephen Gardner of the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote to the heads of the chain in a letter announcing the lawsuit.

The center, which has filed dozens of lawsuits against food companies in recent years, is hoping the publicity and the threat of a lawsuit will force McDonald's to negotiate with them on the issue. The group announced the lawsuit in the letter to McDonald's 30 days before filing it with the hope that the company will agree to stop selling the toys before a suit is filed.

McDonald's did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, which CSPI says would be filed in state court.

The center has not settled on a state yet, but the group believes the toys in Happy Meals violate state consumer protection laws in Massachusetts, Texas, the Washington federal district, New Jersey and California.

The fast food company made a pledge in 2007 to advertise only two types of Happy Meals to children younger than 12: one with four Chicken McNuggets, apple dippers with caramel dip and low-fat white milk, or one with a hamburger, apple dippers and milk. They both meet the company-set requirement of less than 600 calories, and no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent of calories from saturated fat or 35 percent total sugar by weight.

CSPI argues that even if those Happy Meals appear in advertisements, kids order the unhealthier meals most of the time.

The group is hoping its first lawsuit against the mega-chain will have a similar effect as its 2006 lawsuit against Kellogg that prompted the company to agree to a settlement raising the nutritional value of cereals and snacks it markets to children.

Still, some may accuse the group of extremism, arguing that it is the parents' responsibility to monitor what their children eat, not the restaurant's.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, says it's the parents responsibility too, but he equates the toy giveaways to a door to door salesman coming to a family's house every day and asking to privately speak with the children.

"At some point parents get worn down," Jacobson says. "They don't always want to be saying no to their children. We feel like an awful lot of parents would be relieved if this one pressure was removed from them."