Do inexpensive plastic toys lure children–or their parents–into making unhealthy food choices? A leading consumer advocacy group believes they do and is threatening to sue fast food giant McDonald’s if the company doesn’t end its practice of using toys to promote its products.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on Tuesday served Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald’s USA with an intent-to-sue in 30 days if the company doesn’t “immediately stop using toys to market Happy Meals to young children.” McDonald’s, which began offering Happy Meals in 1979, is currently offering a collection of Shrek-themed watches as part of its Happy Meal promotions. Shrek is a cartoon character developed by DreamWorks animation.

shrek-watches.jpg“DreamWorks is the supplier of the drug and McDonald’s is the pusher and distributor in this country,” said CSPI attorney Steve Gardner.

While the organization has considered going after promotion partners like DreamWorks in the past, the popular animation studio is not a target of this particular action.

McDonald’s give-aways don’t just end in the Happy Meal box, however. Online, kids can find puzzles, wallpaper, games, and music videos geared directly toward children, tied in with Happy Meal promos. Above links to the various online games and activities, a statement in a very light, small typeface warns children: “Hey kids, this is advertising”. The links to promotions are all offered in far bolder, brighter, larger typefaces.

“We couldn’t disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest,” the company said in a statement released shortly after CSPI’s announcement.  “Since 2006, we have been a part of the Council for Better Business Bureau’s voluntary initiative to address the importance of children’s well-being. In the U.S., McDonald’s primarily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and one percent low-fat white milk.”

As part of its participation in the Council for Better Business Bureau’s voluntary initiative, McDonald’s “pledged to advertise only Happy Meals that meet McDonald’s nutrition standards for children,” CSPI claims, but the company undermines that pledge with an “insidious use” of toys to promote the meals. That, coupled with the fact that the meals are “nutritionally inappropriate” for children makes the promotions little better than a “bait and switch,” said Gardner.

McDonald’s does use the healthier Apple Dippers in its advertising, the CSPI attorney acknowledged but once the customer actually gets to McDonald’s, the apple side is almost always replaced–by default–with nutritionally inferior fries, unless the customer specifically asks for it. It’s rarely, if ever, offered at the counter, he said.

Anyway, Apple Dippers are only relatively healthier, Gardner added, and send kids a mixed message: apples are only good if they’re paired up with sugary caramel. Ultimately, he said, “They’re forming really bad eating habits. Their healthiest meal still isn’t good for you.”

This isn’t the first official action targeting McDonald’s use of toys to promote its products to children. Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County, CA, voted to ban the promotion tool in restaurants in the county’s unincorporated communities.

McDonald’s has 30 days to respond to CSPI’s notice and did respond Tuesday with a brief email to Michael Jacobson, secretary of the board for the organization.

“Dr. Jacobson,” the succinct message read. “I received your email.” The note was signed by William Whitman, a spokesperson for McDonald’s.

McDonald’s did not respond to additional questions from Food Safety News; Dreamworks did not respond at all.

Pictured:  Shrek 3D Happy Meal Watches from (cropped). 

Update: This story was republished to ensure attribution accuracy.