Unhappy Meals: Industry Watchdog Says “No” to Toys

By Jeremy Potter

On June 23, the LA Times and Associated Press reported that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a demand letter to McDonald’s.   The public interest group stated that it would sue the fast food chain unless it immediately stops offering toys with its Happy Meals.

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner.  Marketing unhealthy food by offering the inducement of toys to children says CSPI, is deceptive, inappropriate, and illegal.   According to CSPI, McDonald’s actions are “a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”

As soon as news about the possible lawsuit was announced, reactions came in from mainstream media, bloggers, and industry watchers alike.  The LA Times simply reported the story factually with no mention of the validity of the legal threats.  The pro-business bloggers at BNET.com came to McDonald’s defense; one called CSPI’s case “weak” while another advocated compromise.

But most mainstream stories were silent on the legal matter.   And that’s the question we have:  Even if we all agree that  Happy Meals are not vitamin-packed and nutritionally sound, is McDonald’s violating any law?

CSPI pointed to a handful of states’ consumer protection laws it claims are being violated, none of which are applicable to children asking for Happy Meals.   A look into a few of these laws revealed reveal that while these laws target deceit, they are used to protect consumers, by and large, from such menaces as mechanics who lie about their work, contractors who lie about the type or quality of their materials, and auto dealers who use bait-and-switch tactics when selling cars.

Such laws have never been applied to advertising practices.

On July 6, 2010, McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner issued a response to CSPI citing public opinion, market research and charity work as evidence of McDonald’s intentions and corporate strategies.  Skinner also accused CSPI of skewing data.  On behalf of McDonald’s, he promised vigorous defense of his company.

He is correct.  McDonald’s is not breaking the law.

Not that CSPI cares.

CSPI is using legal, social and political pressure to challenge McDonald’s on the important issue of children’s health.  CSPI has a successful track record of taking on other food companies on behalf of consumers.  In 2006, CSPI used the same “threatening-letter” strategy against the Kellogg Company and successfully negotiated a change in the way it advertises certain foods to kids.   Also in 2006, CSPI sued KFC over the use of partially hydrogenated cooking oil.  CSPI dropped the lawsuit when KFC promised to phase out its use of all trans fats.

So whether or not McDonald’s has broken any laws may be beside the point. CSPI is at war against an epidemic in our country, of poor nutrition for our children, a battle which is joined by our popular first lady and star chef Jaime Oliver, among others.   This time, against the juggernaut that is McDonald’s, however, CSPI may not prove successful.    We will keep you posted on any developments.


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