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A California mother of two and The Center for Science in the Public Interest are suing McDonald's Corp. to get the fast-food chain to stop using toys to market meals to young children.
They say McDonald's is violating several consumer protection laws by marketing its Happy Meals directly to young children because it exploits children's vulnerability.
"What kids see as a fun toy, I now realize is a sophisticated, high-tech marketing scheme that's designed to put McDonald's between me and my daughters," said Monet Parham, of Sacramento, Calif. "For the sake of other parents and their children, I want McDonald's to stop interfering with my family."
Parham's lawyers, who filed the lawsuit in state court in San Francisco on Wednesday, have asked that it be certified as a class action. The lawsuit doesn't seek damages; it asks the court to bar McDonald's from advertising any meals that feature toys to California children.
McDonald's said it is proud of its Happy Meals and intends to vigorously defend its brand, reputation and food.
"We stand on our 30-year track record of providing a fun experience for kids and families at McDonald's," the company said in a statement.
McDonald's, the world's largest burger chain, is facing scrutiny for including toys with meals. San Francisco recently prohibited them in meals with more than 600 calories or more than 35 percent of their calories from fat.
Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley, has a similar ban. But city leaders in Superior, Wis., this month decided against regulating toys in fast-food meals.
The consumer group said it is focusing on McDonald's because it is the largest fast-food company and spends more money marketing to children than its peers and could serve as a leader if it makes reforms.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a track record of getting the food industry to change its practices. Snack and cereal maker Kellogg Co. agreed to a settlement with the center that set nutrition standards for the foods Kellogg could advertise to children. KFC agreed to phase out oils high in trans fats after the center dropped a lawsuit over KFC's use of partially hydrogenated oils.
Fast-food companies spent over $520 million in 2006 on marketing children's meals, and toys made up almost three-quarters of those expenses, the group said.
In this case, the center claims McDonald's is engaged in a "highly sophisticated scheme to use the bait of toys to exploit children's developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority."
The toys encourage children to eat nutritionally unbalanced Happy Meals, which in turn promotes obesity, according to the center's complaint.
"McDonald's advertising of Happy Meals with toys is deceptive and unfair to children, unfair to parents, and in violation of California law," the complaint states.
It's possible to order Happy Meals with healthier elements, such as apples instead of fries or milk instead of soda. But the center found McDonald's employees usually include the less-healthy options unless a customer specifically requests the healthier foods.
Shares of McDonald's rose 2 cents to $77.13 in early afternoon trading.