With perfect Grinch timing, a consumer group has sued McDonald's demanding that it take the toys out of its Happy Meals.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, claims it violates California law for the hamburger chain to make its meals too appealing to kids, thus launching them on a lifelong course to overeating and other health horrors. It's representing an allegedly typical mother of two from Sacramento named Monet Parham. What's Parham's (so to speak) beef? "Because of McDonald's marketing, [her daughter] Maya has frequently pestered Parham into purchasing Happy Meals, thereby spending money on a product she would not otherwise have purchased."
You're probably wondering: How is this grounds for a lawsuit? No one forced Parham to take her daughters to McDonald's, buy them that particular menu item, and sit by as they ate every last French fry in the bag (if they did).
No, she's suing because when she said no, her kids became disagreeable and "pouted" — for which she wants class action status. If she gets it, McDonald's isn't the only company that should worry. Other kids pout because parents won't get them 800-piece Lego sets, Madame Alexander dolls and Disney World vacations. Are those companies going to be liable too?
The center's longtime shtick is to complain that businesses like McDonald's, rather than our own choices, are to blame for rising obesity. So let's take Happy Meals as an example. When you buy one, you get a string of choices. Milk or soda? (Is that really a hard choice for a parent worried about nutrition?) You can swap out the fattening French fries for "apple dippers" with caramel sauce and plenty of kid appeal. But your choices do not end there. If you think the scoop of fries is too big for a kid serving, you can tell the kid to share it with the grownup on hand, namely you. (You're the grownup. You make the rules.) You can even, shocking as this sounds, toss the surplus French fries into the disposal bin.
Much of the interviewing press was happy to treat Monet Parham as a random (if oddly well-informed) California mom, but it didn't take the blogosphere long to discover that she is apparently anything but random. Ira Stoll, who blogs at Future of Capitalism and used to put out the New York Times-tweaking smartertimes.com, soon discovered (via a commenter) that she is in fact the same person as Monet Parham-Lee, who is a "regional program manager" on the state of California payroll for child nutrition matters.
Specifically, she works on a federally funded program that campaigns to exhort people to eat their vegetables and that sort of thing. The comment:
"Interestingly, her name has been scrubbed from the website of Champions for Change, the Network for a Healthy California. She has given numerous presentations and attended conferences on the importance of eating vegetables and whatnot.
"She presents herself as an ordinary mother. She is not. She is an advocate, and an employee of a California agency tasked with advocating the eating of vegetables. To the extent that Monet Parham-Lee has EVER taken her daughter to a McDonald's, she should have known better."
If you sense a campaign in progress, you're right. At the moment it happens to be centered on California, where both San Francisco and suburban Marin County have passed laws against Happy Meals. And California also has a distinctively liberal consumer law under which far-fetched claims like this one, which might be hooted down elsewhere, regularly get consideration in court.
That said, it's unlikely that even California courts will approve this suit. But in the mean time, the Center for Science in the Public Interest will fatten off the publicity, unattractively.