McDonald's Sued by Consumer Group, California Mom: What's the Beef?

What's happy about a happy meal that isn't loaded with fat, salt and calories? For public officials in San Francisco - plenty. Earlier this month, the city's board of supervisors voted to ban fast food meals sold with toys that don't meet certain health standards - fewer than 600 calories, less than 35 percent from fat. Eric Mar, the supervisor who sponsored the rule, said "We're part of a movement that is moving forward an agenda of food justice." But opponents don't see any justice in taking toys from kids and having the government tell parents what their kids can eat.
McDonald's
McDonald's Happy Meal (McDonald's)

(CBS/AP) McDonald's isn't getting much joy from its Happy Meals.

The world's biggest burger chain is being sued by a California mother and a prominent consumer group over its use of toys to market meals to young children.

They contend that McDonald's is violating consumer protection laws by marketing its Happy Meals directly to young people who are especially vulnerable to marketing messages.

"What kids see as a fun toy, I now realize is a sophisticated, high-tech marketing scheme that's designed to put McDonald's between me and my daughters," said Monet Parham, of Sacramento, Calif. "For the sake of other parents and their children, I want McDonald's to stop interfering with my family."

Parham's lawyers filed the lawsuit in state court in San Francisco on Wednesday, asking that it be certified as a class action. The lawsuit doesn't seek damages. It asks the court to bar McDonald's from advertising any meals that feature toys to California children.

McDonald's said it is proud of its Happy Meals and intends to vigorously defend its brand, reputation and food.

"We stand on our 30-year track record of providing a fun experience for kids and families at McDonald's," the company said in a written statement.

The suit comes in the aftermath of a recent decision by San Francisco to ban restaurants from including toys in meals with more than 600 calories or more than 35 percent of their calories from fat.

The consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said it is focusing on McDonald's because it is the largest fast-food company and spends more money marketing to children than its peers.

CSPI has a track record of getting the food industry to change its practices. Snack and cereal maker Kellogg Co. agreed to a settlement with the center that set nutrition standards for the foods Kellogg could advertise to children. KFC agreed to phase out oils high in trans fats after the center dropped a lawsuit over KFC's use of partially hydrogenated oils.

Fast-food companies spent over $520 million in 2006 on marketing children's meals, and toys made up almost three-quarters of those expenses, the group said.

In this case, the center claims McDonald's is engaged in a "highly sophisticated scheme to use the bait of toys to exploit children's developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority."

The toys encourage children to eat nutritionally unbalanced Happy Meals, which in turn promotes obesity, according to the center's complaint.