HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lawsuit Threatened Over McDonald's Use of Toys to Advertise Happy Meals

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sent a demand letter to McDonald’s threatening to sue if the company didn’t stop using toys to market Happy Meals to young children. The Washington-based group said using toy-related promotions violated state consumer protection laws in Massachusetts, Texas, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and California.

By advertising that Happy Meals include toys, McDonald’s unfairly and deceptively markets directly to children.… Happy Meals lead children to develop a lifelong habit of eating meals that are too high in calories, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium, and devoid of whole grains.

McDonald’s Web site lists 24 Happy Meal combinations. Considering that a reasonable lunch for a young child would contain no more than 430 calories (one third of the 1,300 calories that is the recommended daily intake for children 4 to 8 years old), not a single Happy Meal meets that target. The average of all 24 meals is 26 percent higher in calories than a reasonable lunch. In fact, one meal (cheeseburger, French fries, and chocolate milk) hits 700 calories — a whopping 63 percent higher (and more than half the calories for the entire day).

Consider the Happy Meal composed of a cheeseburger, French fries, and Sprite. That meal has 640 calories (half a day’s worth for young children), 7 grams of saturated fat (half the 14-gram recommended limit), 940 milligrams of sodium (about three-fourths of the 1,200-milligram limit), and 35 grams of sugar (about two days’ worth). Moreover, the bun is made with white, not whole wheat, flour. Although the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends diets centered on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein, McDonald’s Happy Meals consist largely of white flour, fried meat, fried potatoes, salt, and refined sugars.

In a July 6 letter to the Executive Director of CSPI, McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner defended McDonald's marketing practices by saying that “Happy Meals are a fun treat, with right-sized, quality food choices.”  Mr. Skinner went on to argue that

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. …I’m sure you know this category generally applies to the youngest and most sedentary children.

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