It's enough to make a burger executive, and maybe some children, very unhappy.
Health advocates are involved in another season of rallying against the marketing of certain foods to kids. One California county this spring banned toys in most fast-food meals, while demonstrators in May called on Ronald McDonald to retire. In June, the Center for Science in the Public Interest threatened to sue McDonald's if it didn't stop using toys "to lure small children" to Happy Meals.
On Wednesday, McDonald's responded, not with measured words but with a defiant defense of its kids meals, signaling another ramping up of the debate about whether it is appropriate to use advertising and the promise of a toy to entice children into wanting burgers, fries and the like.
Chief Executive Jim Skinner called the Happy Meal a "fun treat" and vowed to "vigorously defend our brand, our reputation, our food and our people."
His statement was contained in a letter sent to the center, responding to what he called its "misinformation" and a "twisted characterization" of McDonald's as the "stranger in the playground handing out candy to children." He even asked for an apology.
The letter, however, also said that the company is open to "constructive feedback."
The debate over marketing fast food, breakfast cereals and other kids' favorites has boiled and simmered for years, tied most closely to concerns about the rising rate of obesity among children. That rate has tripled in the last three decades, only very recently hitting a plateau.
"People used to issue a free pass to the food industry, but that is not the case anymore due to changing public opinion, industry lawsuits and legislative action," said Kelly Brownell, director for Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
One of the latest figures adding pressure to the debate is first lady Michelle Obama, whose "Let's Move" campaign is aimed at ending childhood obesity in a generation.
She devoted no less than a dozen paragraphs of a speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association Conference this spring to the need to reduce the marketing of unhealthful foods to kids.
"Our kids didn't learn about the latest sweets and snack foods on their own," she said. "They hear about these products from advertisements on TV, the Internet, video games, schools and many other places. And any parent knows this marketing is really effective."
Outside a Chicago McDonald's, Romonda Mays, of Pine Bluff, Ark., said the toys are "children catchers." When she gives her kids the choice between fries and apples, "most of the time it's the fries."
McDonald's claims it has "evolved both our menu and marketing practices," seen in the addition of apple slices, albeit served with caramel, and low-fat milk as Happy Meal options. The company said the only Happy Meal it advertises is the combination of white-meat chicken nuggets, apples and milk.
But Margo Wootan, Center for Science in the Public Interest director of nutrition policy, said there is a disconnect between what McDonald's advertises and what customers experience at the restaurants. Wootan claimed that the center found that when customers ask for a Happy Meal, 93 percent of the time they are automatically given fries.
"It's not that the Happy Meal couldn't be a healthy meal, it's just that it is not," Wootan said.
Although McDonald's said the apples are a popular alternative to fries, spokesman Walt Riker declined to provide any figures on Happy Meal sales, including how apples compare with fries in popularity.
Overall, there is no question it's a big business. A 2008 report by the Federal Trade Commission said that fast-food restaurants in 2006 sold more than 1.2 billion children's meals with toys to children 12 and younger.
Despite the public opinion polls cited by health advocates, Skinner cited company statistics showing that "nine out of 10 customers" don't agree with removing the toy and that "parents, in particular, strongly believe they have the right and responsibility to decide what is best for their children, not CSPI."
Cindy Bell, of Valparaiso, Ind., who was with her 4-year-old son and nephew at a Chicago McDonald's, agreed, saying, "It would be nice if (McDonald's) offered a few more nutritious options, but … parents need to take responsibility."
Many of those randomly surveyed outside a few of the restaurants in the area said they eat there with their kids about once a week.
Marion Nestle, author of "What to Eat" and a New York University nutrition professor, encouraged only occasional visits. She said in an e-mail that McDonald's aggressive marketing may have been fine when it was "considered a family treat (once a year on birthdays) and childhood obesity was a rare phenomenon."
But times have changed, she said, and the chain's tactics represent a deliberate attempt "to undermine parental responsibility. … If Happy Meals didn't contain toys, kids wouldn't nag their parents for them, and McDonald's wouldn't sell as many."
Center for Science in the Public Interest's litigation director, Stephen Gardner, said he hoped McDonald's would negotiate an end to the practice of using toys to market unhealthful foods to children.
"If it doesn't, that will all but guarantee that we will have to resort to litigation," he said.
Tribune reporter Kristin Samuelson contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun