LOS ANGELES/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. consumer group sued McDonald's Corp to stop the world's largest hamburger chain from using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is representing a Sacramento mother of two in the lawsuit, which alleges unfair marketing and other violations of California's consumer protection law. It does not seek monetary damages.
"The lawsuit is about the change, not the money," CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner said.
"We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food," said McDonald's spokeswoman Bridget Coffing. "We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals."
Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and tort reform advocate, said he thinks that McDonald's will ultimately prevail but that it will likely have to go through multiple rounds of legal wrangling, which would suit CSPI.
"In the meantime, they've got their step toward a national debate, which is what they want," Olson said.
McDonald's debuted the Happy Meal in the United States in 1979. Modern offerings have included themed items from popular films like "Shrek" or sought-after toys like Ty Beanie Babies.
The Happy Meal has been a huge hit for McDonald's -- making the company one of the world's largest toy distributors -- and spawning me-too offerings at most other fast-food chains.
But lately it also has come under fire from public health officials, parents and lawmakers who are frustrated with rising childhood obesity rates and weak anti-obesity efforts from restaurant operators, which are largely self-regulated.
Those critics say poorly funded education campaigns don't have a chance against fast-food companies, which according to a recent report spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on marketing and advertising.
Such frustrations recently prompted lawmakers in San Francisco and nearby Santa Clara County to pass laws that will require restaurant kids' meals to meet nutritional standards before they can be sold with toys.
CSPI in June alerted McDonald's of its intent to sue and Gardner said the group had hoped to reach an accord out of court. [ID:nN22234354] In 2007, Kellogg Co agreed to stop marketing unhealthy food to young children after a similar warning from CSPI.
Timothy Sandefur, principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, argues that it is the responsibility of parents to regulate what their children eat.
"Not a child on earth has forced his parent to buy him a McDonald's Happy Meal," Sandefur said.
McDonald's gives consumers the option to swap milk for soda and "apple dippers" -- apple slices with caramel dip -- for fries; but critics say most Happy Meals are still too high in calories, saturated fat and sodium to be suitable for very young children.
Plaintiff Monet Parham, who has two young daughters and works as a health educator for the state of California, said she takes her children to McDonald's about once a month.
Nevertheless, she said, her children constantly ask her to take them to get the latest advertised Happy Meal toy.
"This litany of requests is draining and very frustrating for children," she said. "I would like this practice to stop."
CSPI attorney Gardner said the Happy Meal lawsuit will use the same laws that resulted in a clampdown on cigarette advertising to children.
Gardner said McDonald's is a bigger offender than tobacco companies when it comes to unfair marketing because it targets very young children with tantalizing toys and ads, while the tobacco companies only had Joe Camel, who was less appealing.
He added that parents do not have the responsibility to offset unfair marketing from McDonald's.
"Under the law, you don't blame the victim of deceptive practices," Gardner said.
The class-action suit was filed Wednesday in California Superior Court for the district of San Francisco. The case is Monet Parham et al v. McDonald's Corp, No. 10-506178.
Parham is also being represented by private attorney Richard Baker of Baker Law PC in Birmingham, Alabama.
Shares in McDonald's were down 11 cents, or 0.1 percent, at $77.00 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in New York; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Steve Orlofsky