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Published on November 5th, 2010 | by Justin Van Kleeck

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San Francisco’s Regulation of McDonald’s Happy Meal: A Victory for Kids…and for Animals

800px-McDonalds_Happy_MealAmidst all the hubbub of elections this November 2nd, one potentially revolutionary vote was cast: San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted eight to three to prohibit free toys in McDonald’s infamous Happy Meals in the city.

Specifically, as reported by Reuters, the law would allow free toys only in restaurant meals for kids that have less than 600 calories, include fruits and vegetables, and come with beverages that do not contain “excessive” fat or sugar. The goal, according to supporters of the ordinance, is “to promote healthy eating habits while fighting childhood obesity.”

Obviously, this is a huge win for opponents of deceptive marketing campaigns that peddle unhealthy foods and lifestyles to kids, in a country where 15% of children are classified as obese, and lifestyle diseases like heart attacks and diabetes ravage the population as a whole.

But this is also a victory for animals, since it provides a serious blow to the fast-food industry and, through that, the cruel abuses of factory farms.

McDonalds Happy Meal: a Boon for Factory Farms

Despite the fact that consumers get a large proportion of their animal products from factory farms, and despite the relentless campaigns to spread awareness of the horrid torture inflicted on animals in factory farms, there is still a pervasive cultural blindness to the reality of the situation. It is too easy to see processed animal foods as somehow separate from, unrelated to, the living beings that had to suffer and die for them.

Fast food takes the convenience and separation phenomena one step further. The menu items are so far removed from living animals, are marketed with such cunning and conniving ploys to all demographics, and are the acme of convenience, that it takes effort to connect the food to the animals and so to the cruelty of the entire industry.

And although some fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s, have taken steps to reduce cruelty in the farms and slaughterhouses they use (after much effort from animal-rights organizations and conscientious consumers), they are still one of the largest outlets for, and so supporters of, factory farming. You can learn more about the industry’s willing support of (supposedly) cost-cutting, assembly-line efficient animal production at websites such as McCruelty.com or (the lowest of the low) KentuckyFriedCruelty.com.

Happy meat?

Happy meat?

So by hamstringing McDonald’s in their efforts to attract kiddy customers, and feed them unhealthy foods taken from tortured animals, San Francisco made an important contribution to reducing the demand for factory-farmed animal products. They have helped expose the lie about Happy Meals and “happy meat,” which puts a goofy grinning face on the dead flesh of a formerly living, suffering, tortured creature.

And they have made this decision without having to acknowledge or emphasize all the other unhealthy “ingredients” in factory-farmed foods, such as antibiotics, toxic chemicals, animal feces, bacteria…and all the trash that finds its way into processed flesh.

Nevertheless, San Fransisco’s crackdown on Happy Meals is at once a victory for children and parents, who suffer the health consequences from such unhealthy foods, and farmed animals, who have to endure the cruelty of modern industrial factory farms. Perhaps it will be a first step towards more awareness and stricter regulation of the fast-food industry, which is a purveyor of suffering on so many levels.

Ready to get meat out of your diet? We can help… check out our current listing of vegan foods, including meat substitutes, dairy substitutes, and tofu.

Image credits: Christina Kennedy and FlickrReviewR, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license; CALM Action at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.



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About the Author

I am an ethical vegan (since 1999), a writer, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and a vegan-of-all-trades. I have a PhD in English but then left academia to work on social change. I focus on veganism, animal rights, local foods, farming practices, environmentalism, and sustainability--starting from the position that humans are just one part of the biosphere, not the center of it.



22 Responses to San Francisco’s Regulation of McDonald’s Happy Meal: A Victory for Kids…and for Animals

  1. I’m so glad this passed. I hope they extend it more and other locations pick up on it. It’s not about “gov’t regulation” it’s about the health and well-being of our children and future of this country. Good for you, SF Supers! :)

  2. Bobby says:

    When green marketing fails, utilizing the power of government to impose the will of a vocal minority on the larger population is always an option. Zealots in other countries are planning to implement this idea on an even larger scale:

    http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/column_why_you_may_soon_need_a_warmists_permission_to_eat

    As far as the health benefits are concerned, emerging research continues to point to reduced calorie consumption as the pathway to health; regardless of where those calories originate. Case in point, the Twinkie Diet:

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/11/08/twinkie.diet.professor/index.html

    How would you feel if the Cattlemen’s Beef Board FORCED you to consume a product in which you have no interest? Probably just as offended as someone who wants to enjoy their diet without having a regulatory agency look over his shoulder.

  3. @Bobby — I actually thought this one was a bit over the top myself (the regulation, not Justin’s post), but it’s not even remotely about regulating what one can eat… it simply bans using the toys as a way to market these meals to kids.

    Here’s what I don’t get… why are conservatives so against people taking personal responsibility for their choices in this area (as in the carbon card)…? I thought you guys were all for that… You frequently write about the virtues of the free market as a means of curbing environmental problems… but the market can’t work if it doesn’t have inputs on the costs created. Efforts like this harness the market… you still have the same choices you had before; you just have to pay the full cost.

    But no one’s forcing anyone to do anything, or banning anything…

  4. @Bobby: I understand why you might be against banning foods by governmental regulation, and I agree a complete ban on something like this may be going too far. But there is more to it than just taster’s choice…the toy scheming is just that, scheming to attract young customers and get them hooked on fast foods, to make it “part of their diet,” and fast food is far from tops on the nutrition list. Personally, I would not be happy with an enforced veganization on the world or the country. I do not think anything I have ever written makes that argument, or even suggests it. As far as your scenario about the Cattleman’s Beef Board goes, it actually is a poor one: Even if vegans enforced their lifestyle on others, it would be about EXCLUDING foods from the diet…not forcing people to INCLUDE any certain food. So forcing someone to be vegan is not like forcing someone to eat a hamburger.

    @Jeff: Thank you for the response…and the parenthetical in the first line!!!

  5. Bobby says:

    Jeff and Justin, surely, you both understand that developing a scheme of assigning carbon credits to foods based upon the green worldview ultimately results in fewer food choices for the consumer. If eating meat were to require more carbon rations than eating vegetables, the consumer would be forced to eat more vegetables throughout the year to avoid zeroing out his rations before the year’s end in order to avoid outright starvation. Personal responsibility is supposed to be free of such government input. If it isn’t, you create a nanny state where the totalitarians dictate what is best for each individual; who in effect loses his individuality through collective regulation. And Justin’s statement that “Even if vegans enforced their lifestyle on others, it would be about EXCLUDING foods from the diet…not forcing people to INCLUDE any certain food. So forcing someone to be vegan is not like forcing someone to eat a hamburger.” is no better construed than my scenario. By default, forcing someone to EXCLUDE a choice from his diet forces him to INCLUDE a substitute in his diet. You may not dictate which bit of rabbit food I substitute in place of my rabbit, but it will still be rabbit food. Geez, I thought you guys were all about CHOICE and FREEDOM.

  6. But Bobby, if I excluded meat, could I not just eat more of the vegetables, fruits, and other things I already eat? Stopping meat does not mean I have to eat tofu or any particular thing else. There is still plenty of choice. If I have to eat a hamburger or other animal product, though, I have to include something I would not eat otherwise. I guess if you eat 100% animal products your example would work, but otherwise I do not see the correlation.

    As far as government limitation, we accept that all the time, even diet-wise. It would be illegal to eat your neighbor, for example.

  7. @Bobby — As I understand these systems, you wouldn’t be prevented from purchasing anything once your credits were exhausted… you’d just have to pay the price for the embodied carbon emissions. That’s also how cap-and-trade works. So, you’ve always got a choice… you’ve just got to be willing to pay the full price for that choice.

  8. Bobby says:

    Jeff, somehow you’ve manage hit the nail on the head, although you still aren’t seeing the forest for all those darn trees blocking your view. “Cap-and-trade” by definition means that “you’ve” (the end consumer) “just got to be willing to pay the full price for that choice.” As such, who gets to continue enjoying the good things in life? The ruling class. Politicians (Obama, Al Gore, Prince Charles, etc.), academics (who happen to be on the right side of the “science”), wealthy entertainers (DiCaprio, Bono, Sting, et al), captains of industry (those who survive cap-and-tax), and a host of others get to continue to live in opulence while simultaneously preaching to the great unwashed about the wickedness of their ways. Yes, in this twisted world my 2002 SUV has a greater negative impact on the planet than Al Gore’s private jets and Prince Charles’ private trains. The instituting of these schemes force the poorest in society – many who already survive on food stamps – to have less spending power, while simultaneously reducing the number of people in the middle class who opt into such government programs out of necessity. Why does the party which claims to advocate for the poor want more people to live in poverty and to be ever more dependent on the ruling class for its sustenance? How would you and I benefit from a two class form of feudalism?

    Justin, for the sake of consistency, I will change my premise. Let’s say that carnivore activists successfully petition the iron hand of government to pass legislation than bans humans from consuming fruits, nuts and vegetables, because those items are needed to feed livestock. So, now we have EXCLUDED those items from your preferred list of choices leaving you with only meat and fish to consume. Of course, you still have a myriad of choices: red meat be it beef, venison, lamb, goat or pork from the breed of your choosing; fowl be it chicken, duck, goose, partridge, pheasant, dove, pigeon, etc.; fish be it bass, perch, walleye, shark, red snapper, shrimp, prawn, lobster, crab, etc. You could INCLUDE anything you choose, just so long as it isn’t plant based. Even though I don’t live exclusively on meat, I would consider it a staple. How would you react if your staple (vegan food) was legislated off limits? The problem with circular logic is that no matter how you phrase your argument it is still part of the same circle.

  9. @Bobby… hmmm… that sounds amazingly like class warfare… I thought you were against such things… :-) But keep in mind that cost go up relative to actual or embodied carbon emissions… so those products and services with a lower carbon footprint (i.e., that don’t create as much cost on this front) have a stronger market position. And concepts such as cap-and-dividend, or dedicating revenues raised to weatherization and other efficiency features, aim to ease this transition for the poor. Wealthy individuals, of course, won’t have to make as difficult choices (and that’s the case now)… but wealthy industries that generate a portion of their wealth by externalizing these costs (which are generally covered by the government) will have to rethink how they do business…

  10. Bobby, there is still a crucial difference in the scenarios here. Meat may be a staple for you and others, but you cannot survive on it alone; you are still eating non-animal products to some degree. Banning meat/animal products would only remove one portion of your diet, and it is not an essential one; you can still live fully healthfully without it. The same is not true for plant foods.

    And let me be clear, I am not hear calling for a ban on meat or animal products. I think that is the wrong approach, honestly. Stuff like that only leads to black markets and totalitarian states. My focus and concern instead are addressing obvious cruelties to animals in how they are used, and trying to open up people’s awareness to vegan living. I would no more want to force anyone into veganism than I would want to be forced into carnivorism. And banning Happy Meals (if that was actually done) would not be the same as banning meat or animal products, Bobby. Watch out for that slippery slope (and the straw men hanging around the edge).

  11. Bobby says:

    Class warfare would be easily resolved if we adopted a flat tax minus the benefits of deductions and loopholes for individuals and corporations. If EVERYONE paid say 5% federal, 3% state and 1% local, the tax coffers would overflow. Of course, we’d have to find something for all those accountants and IRS agents to do. Since class warfare already exists by structuring the tax codes to fit social justice mandates (the “lucky” pay a greater share than the less fortunate), altering society from a 3 or 4 class system into a 2 class system would only increase the strain by putting more below the poverty line. And yes, I find it most interesting that the left can howl about the injustice of an oil baron making millions, but not the injustice of a profit (word use intentional) of environmental doom doing the same. Last I checked, rich was rich was rich.

    Justin, I am fairly sure that you disdain totalitarianism but statists frequently use seemingly benign tactics to give society a push down the slippery slope. You will be happy to note that I avoided sending you a story about slaughter houses practicing exsanguination without first stunning or sedating the animal due to religious restrictions, because even I thought it was brutal. However, here are a few sentences from another article regarding the San Francisco toy ban:

    “Food justice” is defined as “the right of every person to have access to fresh, nutritious food.” So the Board evidently believes Bay Area tikes have no knowledge of, and are prevented from obtaining, fruits, veggies, tofu and even cherry Gummy Bears. Heartbreaking scenarios come to mind: bananas slipped from small, trembling fingers; broccoli ripped from Barbie backpacks; and orange slices slammed against lockers. Is there no limit to the vast, probably right-wing conspiracy to keep children and nutrients apart?

    Meanwhile, the little tike who asks for “more” at the San Francisco table is welcome to condoms, welcome to estrogen injections, welcome to a plateful of …, but no chicken nuggets, unless you hand over that Megamind figure.

    • Bobby, I think some key things are getting lost here. By “banning” Happy Meals, SF supervisors are not banning meat at all! They are simply banning these specific menu items, which include meat along with other things (the bun, the fries, etc.). If the parents (or the kids) want, they can just as easily buy a Big Mac or whatever. Moreover, they do not have to EAT any veggies or fruits that might get added, if they ever are. The point is to stop allowing a company to entice kids to buy food that is not very healthy, because high in calories and fat without a lot of other nutrition. It is not to ban meat.

  12. Bobby says:

    Justin, I agree that some of the intricacies of the toy ban have been lost during this discussion. However, your second to last sentence makes the ultimate goal of such legislation perfectly clear. That goal being the imposition of restrictions on a company’s First Amendment right to free speech, which is most interesting.

    Since Jeff likes to talk in terms of “real” or cradle-to-grave costs, I have a few questions:

    Q: Will we continue to allow the manufacturers of hybrid-electric cars to exclude the fuel used at the electric generating facility from their MPG calculations since that entices people to buy their products based upon a false premise? Will we ask them to price their vehicles to include the “real” environmental costs of strip mining the precious metals and transporting them from the West to the Far East and back to the West during the manufacturing processes; not to mention the disposal and recycling costs associated with such batteries?

    Q: Will we continue to allow wind turbine manufacturers to claim that their technology is emission free when they exclude the carbon footprints of the massive, diesel driven cranes needed to assemble and maintain them, which for offshore installations increases considerably since those cranes are mounted on barges and pulled out to sea by huge tugboats?

    Q: Will we continue to allow wind and solar power generators to avoid discussing their potential impact on health care costs since those industries increase their employees’ exposure to industry’s leading cause of injury and death: falls from high elevations?

    Why is it acceptable to attack certain organizations rights to advertise and market their products in a way that encourages buy-in, while at the same time allowing other organizations to market their products based upon blatantly false information? Even though most progressives call for change to “save the children,” calling for selective bans on anyone’s constitutional freedoms is truly the slippery slope that I think we all would like to avoid.

  13. All of your examples only prove my point that most companies usually seek more profits above full truth…and in many cases ethical behavior.

    I dislike the deceptions and inaccuracies and oversights in the examples you cite…because I dislike corporate manipulation and false advertising and greenwashing. But putting toys in products to attract kiddie customers is not about free speech. It is just a marketing ploy, pure and simple. And this is one inevitable product of a so-called “free” market.

  14. Bobby says:

    Marketing ploys are most assuredly free speech issues. It is up to the individual consumer without government coercion to employ “buyer beware” tactics when choosing how to spend his money. If McDonald’s was claiming that three Happy Meals per day combined with a couch potato lifestyle would make one look like Charles Atlas, that would be false advertising and the market regulations that already exist would deal with them. Placing a toy in the box makes no claims about how the meal will affect the consumer’s health: be it good or bad.

    Lastly, the desire to make a profit is not inherently evil, but making that case would require more effort than I desire to put forth at this time. Have a great weekend, Justin.

  15. @Bobby — on the questions in your last comment directed at me, I say go for it on all of the lifecycle questions regarding renewable energy… as long as embodied energy costs are also made transparent on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. It’ll make renewables look that much better… because there will still be a point at which these technologies will become carbon-free. Don’t know time-frames offhand… seem to remember it’s seven years for solar panels. This is an issue under discussion within cleantech circles.

    On the health care question… I’d love to see some facts on this. What are the actual injury and death rates…?

    As far as the class warfare question… sure, rich is rich. For all I know, there are executives at Monsanto and ADM that feed their families completely on organic and local foods. Or fossil fuel executives that run their own homes on renewable energy. Should we be raising cain about this “hypocrisy?” Seems to me that focusing on Al Gore’s and Prince Charles’ personal (over)use of fossil fuels is also a case of missing the forest for the trees… it’s easy to point out hypocrites. As far as the tax rates argument, got no response… really not sure how that’s relevant…

  16. Bobby says:

    Jeff: I agree that lifecycle costs could be calculated for all energy sources and products to develop “real” costs. However, shouldn’t the same standard be applied to all of them and shouldn’t they include data based upon concrete variables, not free radical variables? For example, to say that fossil fuels account for “X” number of cases of asthma related hospital visits is a guess from which definitive costs cannot be extrapolated. There may be a vague correlation, but translating that into hard numbers is no more accurate than calculating global temperature variations based solely on CO2 levels. Also, those costs should be in the sticker price of the product, not tied to some cap-and-tax scheme.

    On your second request, here is a sampling of data from http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/construction/falls/mainpage.html:

    “Falls are the leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry. An average of 362 fatal falls occurred each year from 1995 to 1999, with the trend on the increase.”

    Here is another informative link:
    http://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/toc_FatalFacts.html

    Did you really think that my information was unfounded?

    It would be great to know what Monsanto and ADM employees eat. Generally, if I see a restaurant staff eating at the restaurant where they work, I figure it must be safe. If I see employees from one restaurant eating at another restaurant, I question the safety of the first.

    Justin: Please tell me what you’d think I might be drinking. And if you ask Jeff first, you’ll be cheating. I would relish the opportunity to use such information to gauge your opinion of me, and see if I can rebut. I promise to answer honestly.

  17. Bobby says:

    Perrier, with lemon? Although the Perrier/benzene scare that resulted from improved tests developed in the early 1990′s – tests that allowed the detection of impurities in parts per billion instead of parts per million – would not have deterred me from drinking the stuff, Perrier has always been a bit pricey for my taste and seemed to be the drink of choice for truly haughty people with whom I lack the social skills to associate. Lemons, and most citrus fruits for that matter, are choices that I try to limit since they trigger a few health annoyances that I prefer to avoid. However, I am thankful that you did not name some adult beverage, since I am a tee totaller whose knowledge of alcoholic beverages is limited to what I see advertised on television. My response probably would have been “Duh?” had one of those been named.

    Now, brace yourself as this conservative, meat-eating, AGW skeptic divulges his top five favorite beverages. Drum roll please!

    1. Tap Water with ice. For convenient portability, we do purchase bottled water for the kids’ lunches but rarely drink it otherwise.
    2. Iced Tea with or without caffeine. I personally prefer Luzianne or Community when making pitcher quantities.
    3. Hot Tea or Iced Tea with or without caffeine by the cup. Twining’s Prince of Wales is my favorite, but English or Irish Breakfast blends are also quite good.
    4. Whole (not raw) Milk after a few minutes in the freezer. IMO, milk is best near its sublimation phase where it starts to transition from a liquid to a solid. If the surface has 1/8″ to 1/4″ of frozen crystals on the surface, it’s perfect.
    5. Diet Coke. Call it my one addiction.

    Surprised? I seriously doubt that you are. However, sometimes these green blogs present those of us on the other side as lunatics who might use the blood from freshly slaughtered game to wash down the poor critter’s bones as we eat them raw. Sure it has shock value, but it truly is a gross misrepresentation. Later.

    Jeff: I hope that I didn’t break any rules by listing brand names in my reply.

  18. @Bobby… no problems with brand names… even if we were ad supported, I wouldn’t worry about it…

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