A Sacramento mother and the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit Wednesday against McDonald's Corp., alleging that its practice of giving toys with children's meals is deceptive to children.
The organization had been threatening to sue McDonald's since last summer, claiming that the Happy Meals toys constitute a method of circumventing parental control and teach children unhealthy eating. The complaint, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, also accuses the company of false advertising.
The lawsuit alleges that "McDonald's exploits very young California children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly to them" and that "children 8 years old and younger do not have the cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising."
In a call with reporters, Monet Parham, a Sacramento mother of two, said she was bringing the case because of the constant requests for McDonald's Happy Meals.
"I don't think it's OK to entice children with Happy Meals with the promise of a toy," Parham said, adding that she tries to hold her daughters, 6 and 2, to monthly visits to the fast-food chain. But she said their requests increased this summer, thanks to the popularity of "Shrek Forever After." Collecting all of the toys offered in conjunction with the movie would require weekly visits, she said.
"Needless to say, my answer was no," Parham said. "And as usual, pouting ensued and a little bit of a disagreement between us. This doesn't stop with one request. It's truly a litany of requests."
McDonald's, which didn't immediately comment, has said that the vast majority of its customers support Happy Meals and are not offended by the toys associated with the product.
In recent years, the Oak Brook, Ill., fast-food chain has also upgraded the health profile of kids' meals, making chicken nuggets with white meat and offering apple slices with caramel sauce as an alternative to French fries.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest knows that McDonald's isn't the only fast-food chain that sells meals with toys, but targeted McDonald's because it is the biggest, director of litigation Stephen Gardner said. He added that the group has had conversations with other chains, including Burger King, which it has not threatened to sue.
"We're not trying to force McDonald's to sell apples and sprouts," Gardner said. "We're just trying to stop McDonalds from marketing to 3-year-olds."
McDonald's marketing has been facing increased scrutiny. The company became the focus of an effort this year by Corporate Accountability International to retire the Ronald McDonald character. McDonald's also came under scrutiny in California as Marin County and San Francisco passed laws that will ban toys with kids' meal purchases at fast-food restaurants if the food fails to meet nutritional criteria.