San Francisco supervisors want fruits and veggies, or no toys, in McDonald’s Happy Meal

By Trevor Hunnicutt, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

San Francisco Supes vs. Ronald McDonald

SAN FRANCISCO — There was a showdown at City Hall this past week, big guns drawn on both sides, with McDonald’s iconic Happy Meal square in the middle.

A proposed city ordinance would require the giant hamburger chain to either stop putting little toys for kids in those Happy Meal boxes, or otherwise make them healthier by adding fruit and vegetable portions and limiting calories.

Supervisor Eric Mar said in proposing the law that he was trying to protect the health of his constituents.

A battery of McDonald’s Corp. executives turned out to argue, in essence, that such an ordinance would make the Happy Meal decidedly less mirthful.

What they actually said was the legislation threatens McDonald’s decades-old business model and the free choice of its customers.

McDonald’s vice president for nutrition and menu strategy, Karen Wells, said that “denying a toy to a child” would undermine the authority of parents to decide what their children should eat and would also be “difficult…to execute at our restaurants.”

“It’s different from what we’re doing today and different from what we’ve done for 25 years, successfully,” said Wells.

Responded Supervisor Sophie Maxwell in an exasperated voice, “Just because it’s different does not make it necessarily difficult. I mean, McDonald’s is an amazing institution. It’s been around for many years … because it’s able to change and to adapt to new circumstances and new things that people are eating so I think I have a lot more confidence in McDonald’s, I guess, than you do.”


The proposed Happy Meal deal is just the latest in a string of San Francisco ordinances aimed at regulating public health. The city recently expanded a law banning tobacco sales in pharmacies to include grocery stores and big-box stores that also have pharmacies.

Mayor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order earlier this year banning sweetened beverages like Coca Cola and Pepsi from vending machines on city property.

Political analysts say part of it is just politicians shoring up their progressive bona fides in this famously liberal city.

“Local politicians, especially liberal and progressive ones, tend to focus on individual lifestyle issues because they are consistent with liberal or progressive goals, yet do not require large scale government effort and resource mobilization,” said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. “Politicians want to be perceived as being responsive to their constituents, especially if they want to be re-elected, or have higher political ambitions.”

Said Supervisor Mar, “I have no interest in running for mayor. I am committed to my district and as a supervisor I’m doing my best to protect kids and promote healthier lifestyles and living. It has nothing to do about political aspirations.”

Cynthia Goody, McDonald’s nutrition director, said there was no evidence that childhood obesity would be reduced by requiring a fruit or vegetable with all meals as well as a cap on calories, sodium and fats.

In response, a supervisor asked what mix of foods would lower childhood obesity. Goody said she would need to conduct more research to provide an answer.

Mar said he expected his bill to pass out of committee Monday and receive a vote by the full Board of Supervisors later this month. Its fate after that is unclear.

The mayor has slowed down in being fully supportive of some health measures after he was attacked by his opponent in next month’s lieutenant governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, for being the “food police.” Newsom recently vetoed a fee on alcohol sales passed by county supervisors, and he’s indicated he’ll do the same for Ronald McDonald.

It would take eight of 11 supervisors to overturn the veto.

Tony Winnicker, a Newsom spokesman, has said the mayor was opposed to the measures in part because of their deleterious impact on local businesses.

“The mayor is always open to argument and evidence about a better way — he’s not ideological, he’s not wedded to one approach,” said Winnicker. “This is not the time to be considering new fees and taxes that would put San Francisco at a disadvantage to other counties around the state.”

San Francisco has a long history of bold public health stances and the latest string of laws is nothing new, according to Alex Clemens, founder of Barbary Coast Consulting, a local political communications firm.

“San Francisco has a reputation — and it’s well deserved — of being a very progressive city … With that comes naturally, hand in hand, a reliance on government to encourage thoughtful change — that’s just tradition,” said Clemens, whose firm helped fight the fee on liquor distributors and wholesalers.

“In San Francisco you do have an authentic conversation between the progressives and the moderates about how much social engineering is enough and how much is too much.”

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