NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- McDonald's is being sued by a group of consumers and nutrition advocates who want to force the fast food chain to stop using toys to entice children to buy meals they say are unhealthy.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed the class action suit in a California court Wednesday, claims that McDonald's violates the state's consumer protection laws by using toys to market Happy Meals to young children.
The suit was brought on behalf of Monet Parham, a mother of two in Sacramento, and other plaintiffs, the CSPI said. "I object to the fact that McDonald's is getting into my kids' heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat," Parham said in a statement.
CSPI threatened to sue McDonald's in June, but the company refused to discuss ways to avoid a law suit, the group said.
"We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food," said company spokesperson Bridget Coffing. "We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet."
The lawsuit charges that using toys to market Happy Meals to young children is illegal because it "is inherently deceptive and unfair." McDonald's advertising is also unfair to its competitors, who do not choose to attract very young children with the lure of a toy, according to the complaint.
"Every time McDonald's markets a Happy Meal directly to a young child, it exploits a child's developmental vulnerability and violates several states' consumer protection laws, including the California Unfair Competition Law," Steve Gardner, CSPI litigation director, said in a statement.
CSPI and other critics argue that McDonald's promotes unhealthy eating habits among children by deliberately targeting them as part of a strategy to maximize profits.
The group also blasted McDonald's for publicly touting more healthy options, such as Apple Dippers and low-fat milk, while routinely putting French fries in the majority of Happy Meals.
"McDonald's congratulates itself for meals that are hypothetically possible, though it knows very well that it's mostly selling burgers or chicken nuggets, fries, and sodas to very young children," said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.
"In other words, McDonald's offerings consist mostly of fatty meat, fatty cheese, French fries, white flour, and sugar -- a narrow combination of foods that promotes weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease -- and may lead to a lifetime of poor diets," he said.
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