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Toy ban at restaurants passed in Santa Clara

SAN JOSE, Calif. Restaurants in the unincorporated area of Santa Clara County may soon be prohibited from bundling toys and other incentives with children’s meals that do not meet specific nutritional guidelines, the county decided by a 3-2 vote Tuesday.

The ordinance will go into effect in 90 days unless an acceptable and voluntary alternative proposal is offered by the restaurant industry.

Believed to be the first ordinance of its type in the country, the measure adopted by Santa Clara County board of supervisors was passed with the goal to battle childhood obesity. It prohibits about a dozen restaurants in the area from using toys or other incentives, such as tokens for online game play, to help sell restaurant foods that exceed specific guidelines for calories, fat and sodium.

The restaurant industry will have the opportunity to propose another tactic to battle obesity, mainly at the behest of supervisor Dave Cortese, the swing vote on the controversial measure, who as able to build a board majority to consider a foodservice-industry alternative proposal, if any, before the ordinance becomes law.

The amendment pushed back to square one foodservice industry representatives who opposed the ordinance as unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful in the war against childhood obesity, including the California Restaurant Association. The CRA recently waged a high-profile campaign against the proposed ordinance.

“We’ll go back to our restaurant members and find out if there is anything they can offer the supervisors” in exchange for dropping the ordinance, Amalia Chamorro, the CRA’s director of local government affairs, said after the vote and public hearing at which she testified. She also noted that this ordinance, while local, could effect nationwide efforts set to curtail the restaurant industry.

“It sets a tone. It could have a domino affect,” she said.

Along with Chamorro, a number of chain restaurant operators spoke in opposition to the ordinance, including McDonald’s and Burger King franchisees. The hearing room was filled with restaurateurs and other industry representatives.

The operators talked of steps already being taken by chains to provide healthier alternatives to traditional kids meal fare and pointed out how restaurateurs often are primary financial supporters of community athletic programs that keep children active and schools who can teach them to make healthier dining choices.

Chamorro told supervisors that tying toys to nutritional guidelines is “not sound policy making” and that “getting rid of toys will do nothing to solve the problem” of childhood obesity. She referenced a recent CRA-sponsored poll of Santa Clara County residents that found that 80 percent of respondents believed the issue of toys as incentives for kids’ meals is not an important one for local government and that 87 percent of the respondents believe ordinary citizens are better informed than local government and lawmakers about what foods sold in restaurants are healthy and nutritious.

A multi-unit McDonald’s franchisee pointed out to supervisors that the ordinance would create problems, such as when a family with two children visits a restaurant and one child selects a meal that meets the nutritional requirement and gets a toy, but the other picks differently and is denied a toy.

“How am I to coach a 16-year-old employee to deal with a parent who is furious or the child who is crying? Will you be there?” the McDonald’s franchisee asked supervisors. The ordinance, she said, “interferes with the relationship I have with my customers.”

Before the vote, board president Ken Yeager said that he had championed the ordinance because he didn’t want to look back after leaving office and say “I did nothing” when it came to childhood obesity, which he characterized as possibly the leading issue of our time. Though the ordinance, which includes fines of from $250 to $1,000 per violation, regulates only a relatively small number of restaurants in unincorporated county areas, “This is one action we can take that is under our authority” to halt “the endless promotion of toys that are tied to unhealthy meals,” he said.

“I hope that other municipalities, counties and states will follow our lead,” Yeager said.

Supervisor Liz Kniss, who also voted for the ordinance, said that it was along the lines of other regulations adopted in the past that were initially unpopular but have proven worthwhile, such as speed limits and helmet laws.

“It’s not easy to be first [with controversial legislation],” but in adopting the ordinance “we’re sending a message to the county and the country,” she said.

The supervisors who opposed the ordinance – Donald F. Gage and George Shirakawa – agreed, as did the restaurant association, that childhood obesity is a major problem today. But the dissenters added that they felt that the solution lies in more broad-based education about healthy food choices, as well as addressing other problems, such as a shortage of grocery stores and other sources of fresh foods in some neighborhoods.

The Santa Clara ordinance prohibits the use of toys and other incentives to sell single food items with more than 200 calories and 480 milligrams of sodium and meals that exceed 485 calories and 600 milligrams of salt. Additionally, the measure bans the bundling of toys and other incentives with single items and meals that get more than 35 percent of total calories from fat and more than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat; have more than 0.5 grams of transfat; and get more than 10 percent of total calories from sugar, or added caloric sweeteners.

The measure also prohibits the use of toys and other incentives in the sale of beverages that have caffeine and non-nutritive sweeteners and have more than 120 calories and get more than 35 percent of their total calories from fat and more than 10 percent of their total calories from sugar, or added caloric sweeteners.

Contact Alan Liddle at [email protected].

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