Sue McDonald’s over toys in Happy Meals? Not necessarily, says CSPI director

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“McDonald’s faces lawsuit over Happy Meals,” reports the LA Times. “McDonald’s and toy lawsuit: Are ‘Happy Meals’ tricking kids?” reads a CBS News headline. A Google News search turns up hundreds and hundreds of similar articles about a looming lawsuit over using Happy Meal toys to illegally market junk food to kids.

But the litigation director of the Washington-based advocacy group threatening legal action told The Daily Caller that his group doesn’t really want to sue.

“We are hopeful that McDonald’s will settle so that we do not have to go to court,” Stephen Gardner of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said.

“The CSPI has never even seen the inside of a courtroom. They just use the threat as leverage,” Justin Wilson, senior research director for the Center for Consumer Freedom said in an interview. “This is just another in a long chain of frivolous lawsuits by the CSPI.”

CSPI’s letter of intent, which demanded that the fast-food giant “immediately stop using toys to market Happy Meals to young children,” simply allows the CSPI to garner media attention, Wilson said. In 2006 the group went after KFC for its use of partially hydrogenated oil and after Kellogg for the nutrition content of food marketed to children. Both matters were settled out of court.

Gardner told The Daily Caller that the CSPI has been trying to get McDonald’s to ditch Happy Meal toys for years. He said his letter of intent represents the penultimate response to the restaurant chain’s resistance to change. Gardner wrote that the group considers McDonald’s use of Happy Meal toys “illegal, because marketing to kids under 8 is (1) inherently deceptive, because young kids are not developmentally advanced enough to understand the persuasive intent of marketing, and (2) unfair to parents, because marketing to children undermines parental authority and interferes with their ability to raise healthy children.”

If McDonald’s rejects an out-of-court settlement, he said, any legal action would likely occur in only one state, and the results of that lawsuit would have repercussions nationwide. “We would go into the lawsuit with the knowledge that McDonald’s would not want to slice out different requirements for different jurisdictions,” Gardner said.

He said the group would seek out states that had more favorable consumer protection laws, such as California or Massachusetts.

“We couldn’t disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Since 2006, we have been a part of the Council for Better Business Bureau’s voluntary initiative to address the importance of children’s well-being,” McDonald’s vice president of communications, William Whitman, wrote in a statement to the press. “Happy Meals are right-sized for kids, a concept that has not changed since its introduction in 1979.”

In April the L.A. Times reported that the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning the pairing of promotional toys with fast food. The ordinance’s sponsor, Ken Yeager, told the L.A. Times, “This ordinance prevents restaurants from preying on children’s love of toys … [It] breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes.”

Despite the law, some speculated that, rather than having the anticlimactic experience of opening a toy-less “Happy Meal,” many folks would merely go to another county to get their fix.

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