LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. consumer group wants McDonald's Corp to stop using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants and has threatened to sue if the world's biggest hamburger chain does not comply within 30 days.
"Tempting kids with toys is unfair and deceptive, both to kids who don't understand the concept of advertising, and to their parents, who have to put up with their nagging children," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The group, which previously took on fast-food chain KFC over artery-clogging trans fats, alleged that the practice is illegal under consumer protection laws in states including California, Texas, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
"It's a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction," Stephen Gardner, CSPI's litigation director, said in a statement.
McDonald's called the group's charges a "misrepresentation" of its effort to sell healthier food and safe toys.
"Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's," spokesman William Whitman said in a statement.
In 2006, the latest year for which data is available, fast-food companies, led by McDonald's, spent more than $520 million on advertising and toys to promote children's meals, according to a U.S. Federal Trade Commission report.
The latest Happy Meal promotion from McDonald's is a tie-in with the popular DreamWorks Animation film "Shrek Forever After." The meals include toy watches fashioned after the movie's characters Shrek, Donkey, Gingy and Puss in Boots.
Those characters also appear in television and Internet ads for McDonald's. A recent recall of cadmium-contaminated Shrek-themed glasses is unrelated to the CSPI action.
Such advertising appears to have significant influence over youngsters and has come under renewed scrutiny in the United States, where obesity in children is under attack.
A study published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics found that children preferred snack food in packages decorated with popular cartoon characters. However, using the cartoons did not have the same effect in encouraging the youngsters, aged 4 to 6, to eat carrots.
Offered the identical snack with and without a character on the packaging, the children consistently said the snack from the cartoon-decorated package tasted better, Christina Roberto of Yale University in Connecticut and colleagues found.
"We've talked to McDonald's over the years about at least limiting the toys to the healthier Happy Meals, and never made any progress," Jacobson said. "I think it's indisputable that cheap, high-calorie foods epitomized by fast foods have been a major contributor to this obesity epidemic."
McDonald's and other U.S. food companies recommend regular physical activity and offer some healthy food options while also marketing food packed with calories, fat and salt.
McDonald's shares closed 1.8 percent lower on Tuesday to $68.64 on the New York Stock Exchange, on a day of broad losses for stocks.
In 2007, McDonald's and other large U.S. food and drink companies like Coca-Cola Co and General Mills Inc pledged to adopt stricter controls on advertising aimed at children under the age of 12.
McDonald's U.S. advertising focuses on Happy Meals with chicken nuggets, apple dippers and low-fat milk. But CSPI said its own study found that when children or parents ordered Happy Meals, they were given French fries 93 percent of the time and offered soda first in 78 percent of visits.
The number of calories in the 24 available Happy Meal options ranges from 450 to 700. Every Happy Meal has more than 430 calories -- which CSPI said would represent about one-third of the 1,300 daily calories recommended for children aged 4 to 8 -- and each one comes with a toy.
"McDonald's practice of dangling toys in front of children is illegal, regardless of what meal the child eventually gets," CSPI's Gardner wrote in a June 22 letter addressed to McDonald's executives and released to the media.
"Not only does the practice mobilize 'pester power,' but it also imprints on developing minds brand loyalty for McDonald's," said Gardner. Most of the fast-food chain's menu options are of poor nutritional quality, he added.
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama is pushing companies to offer healthier food for kids [ID:nLDE62G1PI], and some elected officials are taking matters into their own hands and passing laws and taxes aimed at curbing obesity.
Lawmakers in California's Silicon Valley have passed a law that would prevent restaurants from giving away free toys and other incentives with unhealthy kids' meals.
The legislation, which got final approval from Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors in May and goes into effect in August, would set basic nutritional standards for children's meals and allow restaurants to give away toys only with meals that meet national nutritional criteria for children.
Additional reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington; editing by John Wallace and Tim Dobbyn