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    « 2010 Press Freedom Report: Northern Europe Still The Best Place For Journalism | Main | China Blocks UN War Crimes Probe On Burma & India Supports The Move »

    San Francisco To Ban Toys With 'Happy Meals' 

    San Francisco Board of Supervisors, yesterday gave preliminary approval to a new bill that allows only those restaurants which serve healthy food, the option to give children free toys and other such incentives with their meals. In other words, toys with 'Happy Meals' would no longer be an option. Toys are frequently used as a marketing ploy to lure kids into buying food from the fast food chains. As kids identify with the product, and get used to the concept, it automatically facilitates 'brand loyalty', which only means more future business. The sponsors of the bill say that the measure is geared towards reducing junk food consumption by children and to address an epidemic of childhood obesity. 

    McDonald's @ Times Square, NYC, Image Source:WikiCommons

    The bill was passed with 8-3 vote yesterday and will go for a final vote next week. SF Mayor Gavin Newsom has already said that he would veto the bill, but if the bill passes next week with a similar majority like yesterday's vote, then it would automatically be veto-proof. Once approved, the new law will come into effect on December 1st, 2011. 

    Per new guidelines, the meal should have less than 600 calories, and  less than 640 mg of sodium, in order to be considered 'healthy'. Here are some other new proposed standards : "A restaurant may combine a free toy or Incentive Item with the purchase of a meal if the meal does not include any of the following as defined in the ordinance: excessive calories, excessive sodium, excessive fat including saturated fat, and trans fat exceeding 0.5 grams.  

    A meal must also contain at least 0.5 cups or more of fruits or vegetables. Breakfast items must contain 0.5 cups of fruits or vegetables. A Restaurant may provide a free toy or Incentive Item in combination with the purchase of a single food item or beverage if the food or beverage includes less than 35% of total calories from fat and less than 10% of calories from added caloric sweeteners. The ordinance has been amended to remove the requirement that a meal include whole grains."

    Just to put things in perspective, the popular McDonald's Happy Meal choice which has four pieces of chicken Mcnuggets has following 'nutritional value': The four chicken nuggets have 190 calories, 12 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 400 mg of sodium, and 11 grams of carbs. If you choose the fries as a side item with that meal (the unhealthiest and therefore the tastiest option), you're adding 380 calories, 19 grams of total fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 270 mg of sodium, and 48 grams of carbs. Although there is an option to choose fruit as a side item with the meal, if the kids use the caramel sauce that comes with the apple slices, then they're adding 70 calories and 15 grams of carbs to the otherwise 'healthy' apples. 

    If the kids choose relatively healthier drink option with that meal like the Apple Juice, it adds 100 calories and 23 grams of carbs. If you go with 1% Low Fat Chocolate Milk, then add 170 calories, 3 grams of total fat, and 26 grams of carbs (25 of which is pure sugar). If you choose plain 1% Low Fat Milk, then you're still adding 100 calories, 2.5 grams of total fat and 12 grams of carbs. These numbers pretty much speak for themselves. SF Supervisor Eric Mar, chief sponsor of the new bill told the SF Chronicle, "This is a tremendous victory for our children's health".

    Obviously not everyone is thrilled with the idea of SF's new rules. Not surprisingly the National Restaurant Association, McDonald's Corp. and it's franchisees - essentially all those who have vested interest in luring kids with toys into eating junk foods - are the ones who are most critical of the bill. Reuters is reporting that McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement, "We are extremely disappointed with today's decision. It's not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for. Getting a toy with a kid's meal is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's." 

    McDonald's, the fast-food giant, which serves on an average 60 million customers per day around the world, has made enormous profits on the 'Happy Meals' since it's launch in 1979. The company's total revenue (for all products sold globally, not just 'Happy Meals') for the year 2009 was an astounding $22,744.7 millions. Sales have jumped globally lately due to the recession, as more people are opting for low-cost food, due to financial constraints. December 2009 marked the 80th consecutive month of global sales increase for McDonald's. The company's 2009 annual report says that globally sales rose 3.8% last year - 2.6% in US, 5.2% in Europe, 3.4% in Asia, Middle East and Africa, 5.3% in Latin America and 5.8% in Canada. Earnings per share increased a solid 9% last year. 

    Reuters reports: "Fifteen percent of American children are overweight or obese -- which puts them at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some states, the childhood obesity rate is over 30 percent. The Center for Science in the Public Interest this summer threatened to sue McDonald's if it did not stop using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants. A lawyer for that group said it is on track to file the lawsuit in the next several weeks.

    In 2006, the latest year for which data is available, fast-food companies led by McDonald's spent more than $520 million on advertising and toys to promote meals for children, according to a U.S. Federal Trade Commission report. When the efforts of other food and beverage companies were included, promotional spending aimed at children topped $1.6 billion."

    The bill, even if it gets enough votes next week to be finalized, is unlikely to sail through without legal challenges from vested interests. McDonald's and all others like it, will not just coyly step aside if they stand to lose significant revenues, especially given the potential that if SF is successful in it's efforts, then other cities may follow suit. 

    ~ Gauri

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