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San Francisco officials, industry reps debate kids' meal toy ban

Hearing carried over for one week to allow more input

San Francisco city and county officials continued for a week a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to prohibit the bundling of toys and other incentives in the sale of children¹s meals that do not meet specific nutritional guidelines.

Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors¹ Land Use and Economic Development Committee conducting the hearing on Monday agreed to extend it beyond the normal three-hour timeframe because of high interest in the matter and said they would take it up again next Monday.

During the portion of the hearing conducted earlier this week, proposed ordinance's author and industry representatives clearly outlined their positions.

The ordinance seeks to prohibit toys and other incentives in the sale of meals that exceed 600 calories, derive more than 10 percent of saturated fat or 35 percent of total calories from fat, or include beverages that get more than 35 percent of their calories from fat or more than 10 percent of their calories from “added caloric sweeteners.”

In addition, the committee amended the measure to reduce the additionally required three-quarters of a cup of vegetables per meal, to a half cup, eliminate references to single food items, add a multi-grain requirement, and give operators the option of offering a half a cup of fruit in lieu of vegetables in breakfast kids’ meals.

The committee acted on the recommendation of ordinance co-author Supervisor Eric Mar.

During the hearing, Mar, citing statistics that blacks and Latinos suffer from a higher-than-average rate of obesity and diabetes, defined it as an “issue of equity and social justice,” a theme echoed by several representatives of nonprofit health advocacy groups and parents speaking in favor of the ordinance.

Pointing to kids-meal toys pulled from his daughter’s toy box, Mar said, “It is these toys that are used too often as incentives to lure and entice children to the meals that are way too high — I’ll just repeat —  way too high in fat and sugar and calories.”

He added that the proposed law is “a very modest effort to support our parents in San Francisco, our teachers and kids’ efforts to choose more nutritious options…by tying toy giveaways to healthier meals.”

However industry representatives, including Karen Wells, McDonald’s USA vice president of U.S. strategy and menu, didn’t see it that way.

“I’m here on behalf of McDonald’s USA in opposition to the proposed ordinance and ask that you not recommend its passage because it undermines parental authority, as well as responsibility, and will not contribute to the improvement of children’s health, nutrition or well being,” Wells said.

“As we look at it, denying a child a toy is not the full solution to the very important issue of children’s’ well-being and childhood obesity,” she said. “We have not found any support or science or recognized nutritional guidance or consumer behavior that would support that.”

Wells pointed out that McDonald’s Happy Meal of four Chicken McNuggets, apple dippers and 1-percent fat milk meets the proposed San Francisco ordinance’s nutritional requirements — except for the requirement of three quarters cup of vegetables. And she noted the chain already provides options as requested by some of the speakers in favor of the ordinance, such as apple slices, side and entrée salads, and 100-percent fruit juices.

Among McDonald’s’ ongoing effort to provide consumers with more healthful choices, she said, are tests in Monterey, Salinas and San Jose, Calif., of Happy Meals that come standard with apple slices as well as a reduced order of fries.

“To conclude, we believe in giving our customers the right to choose,” Wells said. “Parents are telling us it is their decision what they want to feed their children and not necessarily in the hands of legislators.”

McDonald’s director of nutrition and registered dietitian, Cindy Goody, testified that she was “very concerned that the ordinance creates an unrealistic standard for meals that no child actually will eat and only confuse parents about how to make appropriate choices for meals for their children.”

She said that the nutrition criteria included in the proposed ordinance “go beyond what is suggested by recognized food authorities, specifically the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines for Americans.”

San Francisco public health officials earlier indicated that guidelines developed for school meals by the Institute of Medicine, under contract to the United States Dept. of Agriculture, were the basis for the nutrition requirements.

Goody said that an analysis done by the Center for Public Health at the University of Washington in Seattle, based on data from 2001 through 2004, found that of 5,600 meals consumed by children ages six through 11, only six meals would have met San Francisco’s proposed requirements.

“In other words, 99.9 percent of meals eaten by kids six to 11, eaten at home, at school cafeterias and restaurants do not meet the proposed nutritional standards included in this ordinance,” she said.

The California Restaurant Association, as well as a 10-unit San Francisco McDonald’s franchisee, weighed in as being opposed to the proposed ordinance as unnecessary and intrusive, as well as potentially harmful to business.

Several parents, educators and non-profit group representatives speaking in favor of the ordinance pointed to the quick-service industry’s marketing expenditures, which they said some studies had pegged in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as something from which kids needed to be protected.

One teacher characterized a student and her single mother “as easy prey” for such marketing and the allure of “affordable” and “convenient,” if, in her opinion not healthy, quick-service restaurant food.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected].

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