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McDonald's gets around SF Happy Meal toy ban

November 30, 2011 6:16:26 PM PST
Starting Thursday, a groundbreaking law goes into effect in San Francisco. It's designed to help combat childhood obesity. However, one major chain has figured out a way to comply with the letter of the law, but perhaps not the spirit.

The new San Francisco law says no more free toys unless the meals are healthier. Rather than change their menus, McDonald's answer is to simply stop giving away toys.

You can still buy your kid a Happy Meal at McDonald's, but starting Thursday if you want a toy, you will have to buy that, too. San Francisco's law says freebies can only be given if children's meals meet certain nutritional requirements, including fewer than 600 calories, no more than 640 milligrams of sodium, less than 35 percent of total calories can come from fats, and the meals need to include a half-cup of fruit and three-quarters of a cup of veggies.

"We believe that meals that are offered to children should meet a basic standard for health," said Rajiv Bhatia with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "They should be balanced."

McDonald's has reduced the serving size of its fries and puts apples in every Happy Meal, but rather than go as far as the city wants, will simply stop the toy giveaways and charge a dime.

Scott Rodrick owns 10 franchises in the city and based his decision on customer feedback.

"They didn't want us to fight City Hall," said Rodrick. "They wanted us to comply with the letter of the law and they also wanted to have their choice preserved."

Rodrick says 100 percent of the 10-cent fee will go towards building a new Ronald McDonald House in San Francisco like the one in Palo Alto where families can stay while their children are hospitalized.

That's a good selling point for one parent who has been nagged over the years about McDonald's toys.

"I mean, it's going to charity, so I think that's a plus," said parent Vanessa Williams.

McDonald's is not the only restaurant facing the city law, but it is the only one to take out a full page newspaper ad Wednesday to explain its approach to customers.

Supervisor Eric Mar is the sponsor of the new law and is critical of McDonald's tactic.

"They still don't meet basic nutritional standards and they're still using the toy to lure kids and parents towards unhealthy meals," said Mar.

The other restaurant chains the city says have toy giveaways are Burger King, Subway and Carl's Jr. Mar says he's not sure how they will respond, though at one point the industry had threatened a lawsuit.

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