A Sacramento mother and daughter sued McDonald's Corp. in San Francisco Superior Court Wednesday, accusing the company of engaging in illegal deception by using toys to market its fast-food meals to children.
The lawsuit by Monet Parham and her 6-year-old daughter, Maya, was filed by lawyers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group that focuses on nutrition and food safety.
It charges that McDonald's is violating California's Unfair Competition Law by allegedly targeting advertising at children by promising toys with its Happy Meals.
The law prohibits unfair and deceptive business practices.
"McDonald's exploits very young children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly at them," the suit alleges.
"Children eight years old and younger do not have the cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising.
"Thus, McDonald's advertising featuring toys to bait children violates California law because it is inherently deceptive and unfair," the suit alleges.
McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Ill., is the world's largest fast-food chain with 32,000 restaurants worldwide and more than 1,300 in California.
Happy Meals, first introduced by the company in 1979, now typically contain a hamburger, cheeseburger or fried chicken nuggets; French fries or apple slices with caramel dip; a soda, milk or juice; and a free toy.
The lawsuit claims most of those meal combinations are unhealthy because they have too many calories and too much fat, sugar and salt for young children.
It asks for a court order barring McDonald's from advertising Happy Meals to California children by featuring toys. The suit seeks to be certified as a class action on behalf of all California children under the age of 8 and their parents.
McDonald's spokeswoman Bridget Coffing said in a statement, "We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food.
"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."
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors last month passed a law prohibiting companies from including toys with meals unless the meals meet certain nutritional guidelines. The measure, which was opposed by McDonald's, will go into effect in December 2011.