McDonald's May Be Sued over Happy Meals

Last Updated Jun 24, 2010 12:29 PM EDT

McDonald's Happy Meal toys are like the temptations of a pedophile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggested on Tuesday. The consumerist group, known as a nutritional scold, said it would sue McDonald's (MCD) if the fast-food colossus did not take toys off the menu within 30 days. The group claims that the toys contribute to childhood obesity by luring kids into eating fat and salt-laden unhealthy food.

"McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children," said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner in a statement. "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."

Geez, and I thought they were just annoying pieces of plastic that induced whining and hurt when you stepped on them. For its part, McDonald's has defended the Happy Meals as "just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's." The chain introduced its current toy promotion, tied into the latest Shrek movie, as a healthy choice. "McDonald's Launches Shrek-Themed Happy Meal to Motivate Kids to Eat More Fruits, Vegetables and Dairy," the company said. Riiiight.
It turns out that the healthy Happy Meal choices in the U.S. are limited to apple dippers (slices of apple in low-fat caramel sauce) and low-fat milk. Did you get that? Caramel sauce? In other countries, happy meal healthy choices include carrots, cherry tomatoes, organic milk and more.

So, what's a parent (or McDonald's investor) to think? Here are a few thoughts.

  • This threat could have some impact. CSPI has won big concessions from businesses by threatening lawsuits before, reports Melanie Warner on BNET. The group got Kellogg to agree to stringent nutrition standards and helped pull sugary sodas out of schools. A possible compromise would be for McDonald's to tie the toys to healthier choices, as the company has done in those other countries.
  • McDonald's will probably keep offering treats to shareholders, too. If I held stock in Mickey D's, I wouldn't worry about the future. Its shares are up 38 percent since March 2009 and paying out 3.1 percent a year in dividends. Those yellow arches are perpetually popular with toddlers, teens, and their grandparents. (Although parents probably lust after a nice kid-free meal that gets served to them at a table.) Even if the firm does have to defend against this lawsuit, or add some carrots to its Happy Meal, it's not going to stop making money any time soon.
  • Your kids, your nutritional choices. Personally, I'm a centrist, who doesn't think the occasional order of fries (mmm, or a delicious Egg McMuffin) is going to make anyone sick or fat. Any kid young enough to be lured in by little plastic Shrek characters is young enough to depend on you to drive them and pay for their food. Use your power for good.
  • You can use the Happy Meal as a teachable moment. OK, it's hard to discuss personal finance with a 2-year-old. But you can still try something along the lines of this: "No, we aren't going to buy the Happy Meal, because if we just buy the nuggets separately we can save money, and we will use that money to go to the water park next month." It couldn't hurt. Unlike those pointy toys.
Photo by J Fedora
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