McDonald's just can't seem to catch a break lately, it seems.
A Washington-based consumer advocacy group on Tuesday threatened to file a lawsuit against the mega-chain, charging that the it "unfairly and deceptively" markets the toys in its Happy Meals to children.
"McDonald's marketing has the effect of conscripting America's children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers, causing them to nag their parents to bring them to McDonald's,'' wrote Stephen Gardner, a spokesman with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The group is giving McDonald's 30 days to stop selling the toys before a suit is filed in state court. The center has not settled on a state yet, but the group believes the toys in Happy Meals violate state consumer protection laws in Massachusetts, Texas, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and California.
In a statement, McDonald's said it "couldn't disagree more" with the CPSI and points out that it has been a part of the Council for Better Business Bureau's voluntary initiative to address the importance of children's well-being for the last four years.
"We are proud of our Happy Meal which gives our customers wholesome food and toys of the highest quality and safety. Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's," said McDonald's Vice President of Communications, William Whitman, in a written statement.
The fast food company made a pledge in 2007 to advertise only two types of Happy Meals to children younger than 12: one with four Chicken McNuggets, apple dippers with caramel dip and low-fat white milk, or one with a hamburger, apple dippers and milk. They both meet the company-set requirement of less than 600 calories, and no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent of calories from saturated fat or 35 percent total sugar by weight.
CSPI argues that even if those Happy Meals appear in advertisements, kids order the unhealthier meals most of the time.
The group is hoping its first lawsuit against the fast food chain will have a similar effect as its 2006 lawsuit against Kellogg that prompted the company to agree to a settlement raising the nutritional value of cereals and snacks it markets to children.
Still, some may accuse the group of extremism, arguing that it's the parents' responsibility to monitor what their children eat, not the restaurant's.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, says it's the parents responsibility too, but he equates the toy giveaways to a door to door salesman coming to a family's house every day and asking to privately speak with the children.
"At some point parents get worn down," Jacobson says. "They don't always want to be saying no to their children. We feel like an awful lot of parents would be relieved if this one pressure was removed from them."
Last month, demonstrators with the group Corporate Accountability International canvassed downtown Chicago to call for the retirement of Ronald McDonald, claiming the character encourages young people to eat unhealthy foods.