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After months of threats, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has sued McDonald's Corp., alleging that its practice of giving away toys with children's meals is deceptive advertising.
The consumer-advocacy organization generated a slew of media attention last summer when it threatened to sue McDonald's, claiming that the toys constitute a method of circumventing parental control and teaching children unhealthy eating at an early age.
According to the complaint, filed Wednesday in the Superior Court of California for San Francisco County, "McDonald's exploits very young California children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly to them."
Additionally, "Children 8 years old and younger do not have the cognitive skills to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising."
Co-plaintiff Monet Parham, a Sacramento, Calif., 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," she said, adding that she tries to limit her daughters, 6 and 2, to monthly visits. But Parham said the requests increased this summer, thanks to the popularity of "Shrek Forever After" and the idea of collecting all the toys, which would require weekly visits.
In a statement, McDonald's spokeswoman Bridget Coffing said the company is proud of its Happy Meals and intends to "vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food."
"We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals," Coffing said. "We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet."
In recent years, the fast-food chain has 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 company acknowledges that the hamburger-and-fry meals remain the most popular.
Stephen Gardner of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the group knows McDonald's isn't the only fast-food chain that sells meals with toys, but "they are the biggest."
Gardner said that the group has approached McDonald's several times to resolve its issues outside court, but the company "stonewalled them."