The Week in Ethics: McDonald’s Happy Meal Challenge

Update 12-4-2011: San Francisco’s law banning free toys with fast food for children that doesn’t meet nutritional standards (meals under 600 calories that include vegetables and fruit, with non-sugary drink) went into effect December 1, 2011. Critics charge that McDonald’s has circumvented the intent of the law by offering the free toys for $.10 with the purchase of a Happy Meal.

Update 12-27-2010. There is an even greater opportunity for McDonald’s to assume leadership in healthy food and food preparation as fast food chains (including Burger King, Taco Bell, and Papa John’s) have announced new menu items for 2011 that ignore health and healthy eating and offer even more fat, calories and sodium.

McDonald’s was sued this week by a mother in California and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) for using deceptive advertising to lure young children into its restaurants to buy Happy Meals to get free toys; Happy Meals are generally high in sodium, fat and calories, exceeding recommended levels for children under eight.

Criticism over the nutritional content of McDonald’s food and its contribution to obesity has been discussed for years. This column did a three-part series on obesity last year that included looking at the emotional and marketing pull of McDonald’s in the obesity battle.

Last month San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to ban restaurants from giving a free toy with food that exceeds established levels of calories, fat and sugar. Instead, fruit and vegetables would need to be included in the meal in order for a toy to be offered. The law will go into effect December 1, 2011.

McDonald’s response to San Francisco’s action was to indicate it wasn’t what customers wanted or asked for: “We are extremely proud of our Happy Meals, which give our youngest guests wholesome food and toys of the highest quality,” said spokeswoman Danya Proud. “Getting a toy with a kid’s meal is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald’s.”

CSPI says that it has been trying to meet with McDonald’s since June to reach an agreement to avoid litigation but the fast-food company refused. “McDonald’s congratulates itself for meals that are hypothetically possible,  though it knows very well that it’s mostly selling burgers or chicken nuggets, fries, and sodas to very young children,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a statement this week. “In other words, McDonald’s offerings consist mostly of fatty meat, fatty cheese, French fries, white flour, and sugar—a narrow combination of foods that promotes weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—and may lead to a lifetime of poor diets.”

Parents have a responsibility to say “No” to food that is unhealthy for their kids. Happy Meals have calories that can top 700. It is a harder sell to persuade a child while in McDonald’s to eat only a hamburger with water and apple slices without a dip or fries for 280 calories. Monet Parham, the mother who filed the lawsuit, said in CSPI’s statement, “I object to the fact that McDonald’s is getting into my kids head without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat.”

McDonald’s website on nutrition goes on the offensive: “You rely on us to deliver quality food, and we take that responsibility seriously. From our team of registered dietitians to our trusted suppliers, we’re dedicated to making you feel good about choosing McDonald’s foods and beverages.” They provide the credentials of two nutritionists, show the Mom’s Quality Correspondents, and have captions like “food to feel great about.”

In their corporate responsibility section, McDonald’s offers no specific information on the calories, sodium, sugar, and fat in specific Happy Meals menu items.  The  site indicates that the healthy food choices available in Happy Meals are fruits, dairy products, vegetables, and mineral water.

McDonald’s may be doing a great deal to address criticism about the link of its food to obesity. And they are only one of a legion of fast food restaurants that offer high sodium, high fat, high sugar, and high calorie foods.

However, there is a tremendous need for leadership here to create healthier ways to prepare food and to offer healthier menus. Kids’ nutrition is a first step. McDonald’s is well positioned to provide that leadership. The lawsuit  isn’t the challenge. The challenge is to find answers to creating healthier food and still be a financially successful company.

Given the enormous power McDonald’s has to shape what is fun and cool to eat, what if they redirected their energy to developing innovative solutions to inexpensive, good-to-eat food that is actually good for children?

What if they aligned with advocates like Michael Pollan or Jamie Oliver to help develop nutritious, fun, tasty eating options? Innovation is generally how we break patterns of things that aren’t working.

And then, what if McDonald’s utilized their tremendous marketing savvy and brand sophistication to promote the fun and adventure in coming to McDonald’s to enjoy delicious Happy Meals that are also nutritious. McDonald’s brand is about creating fun for kids and they are in a terrific position to create some teaching moments. Eating healthy can be fun. McDonald’s contribution to repositioning what healthy means would earn it a hero’s prize in corporate responsibility. Add to that a great toy and “McDonald’s I’m loving it.”

Gael O’Brien, December 17, 2010

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.

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2 Comments on “The Week in Ethics: McDonald’s Happy Meal Challenge”

  1. Ethics Sage Says:

    Gael,

    I agree with your analysis of McDonalds’s responsibilities. The company clearly fails to meet its corporate social responsibilities to the public, especially young children, who rely on the quality of food served and the safety of giveaways. However, the other side of the coin is for parents to assume personal responsibility in deciding what is best for their children. We all know about the lack of nutritional benefit and, indeed, unhealthiness, of McDonald’s food. Also, the prize in the Happy Meal box can be discarded. It’s similar to monitoring what your child watches on television. You can block unwanted stations and be more attentive to what they do. Finally, where does it all stop? Should we go after the candy makers for making a product that can cause significant weight gain and a greater risk of heart problems down the road?


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