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McDonald's Happy Meals under fire.

McDonald's retaurants are the target of consumer advocacy groups accusing the giant franchiser of "unfairly and deceptively" marketing toys to children.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) boldly proclaimed McDonald's to be the "the stranger in the playground" in a recent statement.  Litigation director, Stephen Gardner says using toys to entice children is "a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”

Gardner issued a letter to the heads of the chain 30 days prior to filing a law suit, hoping the publicity and threat of a lawsuit would be enough to force McDonald's to agree to stop selling the toys.

McDonald's Vice President of Communications, William Whitman, said in a statement that the company "couldn't disagree more" with CSPI's assertion that their toys violate any laws. "We are proud of our Happy Meal which gives our customers wholesome food and toys of the highest quality and safety," Whitman said. "Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's."

According to a Federal Trade Commission report, fast food chains including McDonald’s spent more than $520 million on advertising and toys to promote children’s meals. With obesity in children at record highs, such advertising appears to have significant influence over youngsters and has come under renewed scrutiny in the United States.

Pediatrics journal published reports last week that found children preferred snack food in packages decorated with recognizable cartoon characters, but were not fooled when carrots were substituted for cookies or other unhealthy snacks in the same packaging.

McDonald's made a pledge in 2007 to advertise only two types of Happy Meals to children younger than 12, neither of which included french fries or juice. They both choices totaled less than 600 calories, and calculated no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent of calories from saturated fat or 35 percent total sugar by weight.

Despite the chain's efforts, CSPI argues that it's too little too late. Kids will order the unhealthier meals most of the time. 

Some parents might be tempted to argue it's the parents' responsibility to monitor what their children eat but CSPI is not convinced. Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI equates the toy giveaways to a door to door salesman coming to a family's house every day and asking to privately speak with the children.

"At some point parents get worn down," Jacobson says. "They don't always want to be saying no to their children. We feel like an awful lot of parents would be relieved if this one pressure was removed from them."
 

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