The latest target in the battle over fast food is something you shouldn't even put in your mouth.
Convinced that Happy Meals and other food promotions aimed at children could make kids fat as well as happy, county officials in Silicon Valley are poised to outlaw the little toys that often come with high-calorie offerings.
The proposed ban is the latest in a growing string of efforts to change the types of foods aimed at youngsters and the way they are cooked and sold. Across the nation, cities, states and school boards have taken aim at excessive sugar, salt and certain types of fats.
Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the proposal would forbid the inclusion of a toy in any restaurant meal that has more than 485 calories, more than 600 mg of salt or high amounts of sugar or fat. In the case of McDonald's, the limits would include all of the chain's Happy Meals — even those that include apple sticks instead of French fries.
Supporters say the ban would encourage restaurants to offer more-nutritious foods to kids and would make unhealthful items less appealing. But opponents believe it amounts to government meddling in parental decisions. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors will consider the proposal Tuesday.
Even though it's largely symbolic — the proposed ban would apply only to the dozen fast-food restaurants within the jurisdiction of the board — the proposal has caused a bit of an uproar on the Internet, where comments on YouTube and other sites say it is another example of the "nanny state" gone wild.
The California Restaurant Assn. has taken out full-page newspaper advertisements against the proposed ordinance in local newspapers. One shows a little girl with her hands cuffed behind her back as she holds a stuffed animal.
Another opponent wrote in a YouTube posting, "I want to know when the pitchforks and torches and rope is going to come out.... We need to run these Frankenstein politician monsters the hell out of town!"
Ken Yeager, the Santa Clara County supervisor who is behind the effort, says the toys in kids' meals are contributing to America's obesity epidemic by encouraging children to eat unhealthful, fattening foods.
"People ask why I want to take toys out of the hands of children," said Yeager, who is president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. "But we now know that 70% of the kids that are overweight or obese will be overweight or obese as adults. Why would we want to burden anybody with a lifetime of chronic illness?"
According to a recent congressional report, food companies spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 marketing their wares to children. About $360 million was spent on the toys included with kids' meals, incentives that restaurant marketers have long viewed as key to bringing in families with children.
"We went through a phase when my daughter wanted the Happy Meal just to get the toy," said Kristen Dimont, 37. The Sunnyvale blogger said that once her child tasted fast food, it took years to coax her back to the healthful variety. Dimont likes the idea of the ban — and thinks the supervisors should consider extending it to the play yards that also attract children to fast-food restaurants.
Rebecca Wolpinsky, 32, a mother of two, says she can't stand the toys that are included with fast-food meals for children. "The toys are crap, honestly," she said. "We end up recycling them or they end up getting left in the car."
But Wolpinsky opposes banning the toys — or blaming them for childhood obesity.
"To say that Burger King or McDonald's is the root cause or that giving toys with children's meals is a root cause is not right," she said.
McDonald's declined to comment on the proposed ban. But the California Restaurant Assn. has played a major role in the opposition.
If County Supervisor Yeager "wants to take away the toys that are making kids fat, take away Xboxes, take away PlayStations, take away flat-screen TVs," said Daniel Conway, spokesman for the industry group.
Yeager knows that even if the board passes his proposal, its effect would be small. Even so, he says, it's worth it.
"We're responsible for paying for healthcare in the whole county," Yeager said. "We pay close to $2 billion annually on healthcare, and the costs have done nothing but rise." A big part of the increase, he said, is costs related to obesity.
Bob Bernstein, the Kansas City, Mo., advertising executive who helped dream up the Happy Meal for McDonald's in the 1970s, said the concept was to offer something just for kids.
"To make a child happy and to not cost Mom any additional money — that was the original idea," he said. "The toy was not the reigning reason for the child to order the Happy Meal."