J. KARL MILLER: Government should keep hands off Happy Meals

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 6:45 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 17, 2010

San Francisco, that bastion of deliberately irrational behavior, has carried its meddling into personal affairs and parenting to a new low by passing a ban on giveaway toys in such offerings as McDonald's Happy Meals, unless they meet certain nutritional standards for calories, sodium and fat. In short, the city's board of supervisors has anointed itself "Supreme Nanny."

The board established as healthy nutrition benchmarks limiting meals to fewer than 600 calories, less than 640 milligrams of sodium and fewer than 35 calories from fat — or no toy. The statute is the brainchild of San Francisco Board Supervisor Eric Mar, who claims to have been "horrified" over the accumulation of fast food toys by his daughter, deciding once and for all to combat the obesity caused by fatty foods.

Admittedly, striking a blow against obesity, particularly in children but also adults, is a noteworthy goal, one deserving of applause. Nevertheless, one must wonder how Supervisor Mar reconciles his daughter's treasure trove of Happy Meal toys with his responsibility as a parent to supervise her diet? After all, if Supervisor Mar, who must obviously hold the grocery purse strings, cannot control the nutritional habits of his own child, where does he find the license to interfere with the rights of others?

Moreover, this overdose of bureaucratic nonsense could go nationwide if the Center for Science in the Public Interest forges ahead with its suit against McDonald's for its practice of giving away a free toy with a burger, fries and a small drink. According to CSPI's litigation director, "McDonald's use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits children's developmental immaturity — to induce young children to prefer foods that may harm their health."

So what gives these overly officious, meddling interlopers a license to regulate the culinary preferences of the consumer, particularly when neither the consumer nor the producer has requested said interference? That obesity is an ever increasing problem is obvious; nevertheless, an arbitrary ban on toys in Happy Meals by busybody, do-gooder city fathers or national food police is a futile and inane gesture.

Responsibility for diet and nutrition is a function of family. It is not within the purview of government or quasi-government entities to decide for parents where, what, when or how much their children must eat, nor establish an arbitrary nutritional standard for meal ingredients before a prize or a dessert may be included. Realistically, anyone, regardless of relative maturity or age, whose preferred diet is high-calorie, high-fat fast food is not going to alter that habit because of the absence of a toy or prize in the package. However, for many if not the majority, a McDonald's or Burger King meal is a singular treat — to deny that child or that elderly second childhood person the advertised treat for no better reason than a "morally superior" gesture is asinine.

To be sure, dried fruits, carrot and celery sticks and apples are far more healthful than fries or tater tots — but, so are salads or servings of Brussels sprouts and broccoli. But is it not up to the parent to determine when to require the more healthy, but less desirable, fruit and veggie alternatives?

And, as we are all too aware, today's youngsters spend entirely too much time watching television, playing video games, texting and being hauled from event to event rather than walking, biking, skipping rope or organizing activities on their own. Is it therefore mandated that government nannies shall usurp parental responsibilities by taking over recreation activities?

For those who may consider this opinion an overreaction, may I remind you of the CSPI's recommendations to ban coconut oil in movie popcorn, tax sugary drinks and bar trans fats (which account for less than 2 percent of caloric intake). Also you may recall the anti-smoking crusaders, who started small by gaining a smoking prohibition on aircraft and have parlayed that into laws against smoking in restaurants as well as outside and even on beaches in some locales.

If government-supported zealots are enabled to take over the parental responsibility of caring and feeding of children, where is the brake to halt those same agencies from  a decree that grown-ups be "clean platers" to merit dessert?

Our Declaration of Independence holds that among our certain inalienable rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Although not put into words, there is a tacit understanding that these inalienable rights include the authority for one to make individual decisions — even to make a fool or a pig of oneself on occasion.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


ronald jeff November 17, 2010 | 2:44 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
Ellis Smith November 17, 2010 | 6:34 a.m.


I find the concern about "undercutting parental authority" a bit laughable. In families where parental authority is habitually absent, how can McDonald's or anyone else "undercut" it?

Which are we going to have in this country? Freedom to choose, even if our choices are notoriously poor, or idiots and morons trying to tell us how to run (or ruin) our lives?

Perhaps anyone commenting on this should divulge whether they have equity in the business involved. I do, and have for years, but don't like the food at McDonald's. I take my small part of their profits but eat elsewhere.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 17, 2010 | 8:10 a.m.

I doubt the toy is all that much of a factor. I know I liked McDonald's stuff when I was a kid. It's really kid friendly food - bland, bur with enough ketchup, pickle, and salt to taste good to a kid's palate. Furthermore, I don't know of any studies that show an occasional burger and fries to be bad for a child's health.

I'd wonder how much this issue has been worth to CSPI?


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 17, 2010 | 9:20 a.m.

How much revenue generated by some fast food outlets is strictly the result of clever (and incessant) advertising and how much represents real differentiation in respective products?

What I'm about to say may be apocryphal, but supposedly some years ago a well-known laboratory tested Colonel Sander's' "secret blend of herbs and spices" and didn't find much except flour .

And contrary to a whispered saying, Lydia Pinkham's celebrated concoction for women probably didn't contain "a baby in every bottle." :)

Sad to say we have problems of this type with products sold largely or entirely to industrial customers, but it makes jobs for engineers, trying to clean up the mess and ward off lawsuits. In the last 50 years I've seldom met a marketer I didn't want to strangle. :)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 17, 2010 | 9:45 a.m.

If there are any parents out there who have problems denying Happy Meals when they take their tykes to McDonald's, let me share something that works for me. "No." If the kids have been exceptionally good and I'm in the mood, they may occasionally get one, but the usual answer is no. Dave Ramsey has a better way of putting it, but I'm not finding it on Google at the moment.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote November 17, 2010 | 10:54 a.m.

Though this (the ban) is an easy target for those arguing government overreach, I think the larger issue is whether as a society it is beneficial for corporations to advertise to children. The toys in the meals are a form of advertising to entice the children to consume their products. Advertising to children is illegal in a number of countries, and with good reason. This ban represents a muddled (and I agree wrongheaded) attempt to protect children from the actions of corporations who in the aggregate have a decidedly negative impact on society. As a social libertarian, i think adults should be able to do whatever they like, even if it harms them, that includes buying harmful products such as cigarettes or unhealthy foods. I don't however think that children are capable of making the same decision in regards to their own health.
I don't know of many informed parents that think it is acceptable to feed their kids fast food. Mr. Miller and commenters appear to be saying that while they themselves have no problem not feeding the kids junk, other less adept parents who want to feed their kids junk should have the right to do so. I disagree with that logic. The real issue is how do we protect children from the rapacious actions of corporations in a free society? That topic would make for a much more interesting column as there really isn't a straightforward answer (as this ban illustrates).

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote November 17, 2010 | 11:06 a.m.

As a follow up, the government restricts the sale of cigarettes as well as alcohol to children, because they are deleterious to one's health. Are those instances of government overreach as well? With the striking increase of obesity amongst our children as well as the increasing prevalence of diabetes among juveniles it would be difficult to make the argument that unhealthy foods do not carry significant costs, both to the individual as well as society in general. (Though it would appear Mr. Foecking is making that argument, which is not to dissimilar to the arguments made by tobacco executives before the evidence was overwhelming that cigarettes were unhealthy).

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 17, 2010 | 12:13 p.m.

Okay, so when do we get government mandatory exercise attendence, government mandatory TV viewing, government mandatory restricted time where children can not play video games, government mandatory study periods, etc., etc.

How in the heck did we ever survive without big government telling us how to live our lives?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 17, 2010 | 12:50 p.m.

Christopher Foote wrote:

"I don't however think that children are capable of making the same decision in regards to their own health."

Sure, and that's why the parents have to step up and say "No", if they don't want their children to have or do something. Advertising is just persuasion - the decision whether to follow it is totally the responsibility of the person (or their guardian in the case of a child).

McDonald's is a successful business because they give people what they want. No one forces anyone to eat there. Moreover, the fact that a child may want the toy that comes with a Happy Meal doesn't mean they don't like the rest of the food - a child that hates Brussels sprouts isn't going to want a Brussels sprout Happy Meal (were such a thing available - and the reasons it's not is another part of your post I could go into) just to get the little toy. If a company is otherwise giving consumers a safe (meaning following all food safety and storage rules) product, then let consumers decide whether or not to eat it.

"With the striking increase of obesity amongst our children as well as the increasing prevalence of diabetes among juveniles it would be difficult to make the argument that unhealthy foods do not carry significant costs"

Obesity (and resulting type II diabetes) is also a result of the chronic lack of exercise that a typical American child gets. I'd say that's more important in terms of having a healthy child than what he eats.

There's nothing terrible about a burger and fries *once in a while*. It's just protein, carbs, and fat like anything else. The problems come when kids eat that stuff all the time to the point of dietary imbalance - and the parents have to be responsible for that. There aren't laws against being a lazy parent, and I would hate to try to make them because they would unquestionably be political and unfair.

Also, what do you consider "unhealthy" food? That's a quite complicated issue, and has little to do with chemical additives, pesticides, high fructose corn syrup, etc. It's a question of moderation and balance, and whether we gat that from our back yards or a megacorporation like Kraft or McDonalds is less of the issue.


(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote November 17, 2010 | 5:15 p.m.

@Mr. Foecking,

I largely agree with your comments, however, to play the devil's advocate the same arguments you have just made could be made for cigarettes. That is it is very unlikely that if one has a cigarette every *once in a while* that they will suffer dire health consequences. Why shouldn't we just leave that up to parents as well? Do you think the ban on selling tobacco to minors is justified? It wouldn't surprise me if the deleterious health consequences of eating fast food regularly were on par with a daily smoking habit.

(we all probably have our own definitions of unhealthy foods...I would consider any foods high in hydrogenated oils as unhealthy. I also think sugar (sucrose: glucose-fructose) as well as salt is unhealthy in the doses found in your average fast food serving. I'm not really sure about the health issues of HFCS but intuitively think they are probably less healthy than sucrose, as evolution is quite a powerful force in shaping our overall design, and did so in the absence of HFCS).

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 17, 2010 | 7:54 p.m.

50 years ago our mothers made us get out of the house and play. Now mothers are afraid to have their children go out and play.

So what has changed in the last 50 years?

(Report Comment)
Evelyn Dunn November 18, 2010 | 5:38 a.m.

I read Col. Miller's column regularly and I don't recall many which generated the response that this one has. I agree with Mr. Milsop when he asks "how did we ever survive?" I raised 3 healthy children and as I watch them with their own kids I wonder how mine survived without backward facing car seats? in fact, how did we even get them home from the hospital? when they dropped a pacifier on the floor and I popped it into my mouth before giving it back, who knows what germs I passed on?This may seem off topic..but I feel it illustrates what's wrong with our government at all levels.Instead of taking care of appropriate business,they pass the time removing yet more of our liberties. The McDonald's toy thing is just an example, and a very good example at that.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 18, 2010 | 9:26 a.m.

Christopher Foote wrote:

"Do you think the ban on selling tobacco to minors is justified?"

Well, a cigarette isn't food, and you don't need them to live. Same with alcohol (although alcohol does have food value). Whether a Happy Meal is an optimal meal for a growing child is debatable, but it is still food and provides nourishment. I'd argue that the human body is adaptable enough that it can use the nutrients in a Happy Meal in addition to fresh, veggie-rich, home-cooked meals, without a lot of problems.

The problem comes in when the kid eats nothing but burgers and pizza. Even when schools make "healthy" foods available to students, they still tend to get the burgers and pizza. That's not McDonald's fault, it's the parents.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the deleterious health consequences of eating fast food regularly were on par with a daily smoking habit."

I would argue that that depends on what "regularly" means, and what else is eaten, and especially how much exercise the child gets. Morgan Spurlock made himself sick because he ate nothing but Big Macs and fries for 30 days, but how many people (even fast food junkies) actually do that?

We are obese and out of shape because of our food abundance and our labor saving devices (read "petroleum"), not because of fast food specifically. There's not a whole lot of difference between a Big Mac and a burger that one cooks at home - in fact the one at home might be bigger and have a lot more calories than the McDonald's burger.

Restaurant foods tend to have too much salt, fat, and/or sugar. Foods like this tend to be very popular (think "Bloomin' Onion"), however, even though most people know that this stuff packs on the pounds, the process of packing is slow enough, and the joy of eating big enough, that people feel the risk is worth it. Who are we to tell them it's not, and who are we to criticize the businesses that give people what they like? If people didn't like the food, they wouldn't be in business. Bankruptcy dockets are littered with wanna-be fast food (and other restaurant) chains that didn't survive.

Advertising might make someone try something, but they have to like it in order to eat it again, whether it's done by a "rapacious corporation" or a mom-n-pop diner. Both can serve large portions of nutritionally unbalanced food. Is one worse than the other just because they're bigger and make more money?


(Report Comment)
Amy Vandergriff-Belcher November 18, 2010 | 11:18 a.m.

(Just thought you should know, as I am reading these comments, I'm eating a double cheeseburger (plain) and a medium fry from McD's. Don't judge, it's a pregnancy craving today.) I don't eat there very often (maybe once a month if even) but man, I do love their fries! My kids don't eat much fast food either. They don't like it. My 11 year old probably hasn't had fast food since he was 4 or 5. He flat out refuses. When we do get the other children a Happy Meal, I usually take the toy out before it makes it in their hands because the toys that McD's puts in their Happy Meals are junk anyway and I don't like picking up the broken pieces a few days later. I don't think taking the toy out of the meal will cause any chain restaurant to make their food more healthy. McD's offers good choices (I say that loosely) with their Happy Meal now anyway. Apples instead of fries. Point being, gov't can try to do what they want but I don't think it will hurt the business of fast food places.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 18, 2010 | 1:08 p.m.

When liberals can keep their elected officials from being corrupt, then they can tell me what to feed my kids.

(Report Comment)
John Bliss November 18, 2010 | 1:57 p.m.

Colonel, you sparked a lot of comments! My first thought is since when does San Fran, dictate Morales? Talk about fruits and nuts, and I live in CA! Also this Eric Mar, here is a thought: Learn how to cook at home! That would apply to all the men, as I was raised with six SISTERS, all of us were expected to pull our weight in the kitchen. In response to Don's comment, about getting out of the house, that is because we ATE THERE, not a McD's! So did the neighborhood kids, it is safer when 20-30 are playing, than just one.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 18, 2010 | 2:23 p.m.

Oh Don, you think conservatives aren't corrupt? Let's start with Tom DeLay, for one. Corruption is a bipartisan matter that both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of.

(Report Comment)
David Rosman November 18, 2010 | 3:39 p.m.

Oh Karl, I will donate my collection of MickyD, The King, Red Headed Girl and Fat Boy toys to you. More important here is not the toys but what our citizens are putting in their mouths.

I suggest you read the news concerning the McDonald’s lowly hamburger. Like the Twinkie, the McD burger never dies. Yahoo News was not the only one to report the ‘great experiment.” ( You can watch the results on YouTube ( And then there are those wonderful McDonald’s fries (

It also seems that our children recognize Ronald McDonald more than Santa Claus. The airwaves are replete with commercials, not for the food, but the toys that the children all want. Cheap toys, but toys nonetheless.

So, I’ll see you tomorrow at the gathering at McDonalds on Stadium for egg McMuffins and coffee? I wonder if I can get that whirligig thing?

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller November 18, 2010 | 7:45 p.m.

David, The first of the links you posted was all I needed to confirm my suspicion that there are people on the planet who lead strange lives. The image of that lady religiously snapping a photo of a hamburger--any hamburger--once a week for six months gives new insight to why there are starving artists.
By the way, that more children recognize Ronald McDonald more than Santa Claus is much less troubling than a survey of college sophomores, 61 percent of whom identified Joan of Arc as Mrs Noah.
As for meeting for breakfast at McDonald's, I am a Waffle House guy.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 19, 2010 | 4:50 a.m.

Colonel, Al Gore invented waffles.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 19, 2010 | 5:24 a.m.

Okay John, let's recap this for you on Tom DeLay. Two grand juries rejected Travis County DA Ronnie Earle's charges of money laundering against DeLay in just three days. Two days later (3 grand juries in 5 days) Earle got an indictment on the money laundering charge from a third grand jury. Would you say that constitutes jury shopping?

Now here's the real kicker. The grand jury foreman of the jury, retired deputy William Gibson, admitted in an on the air interview on KLBJ radio that he was mad at DeLay for helping to defeat a friend of his in an election. He further stated that he was going to indict DeLay regardless of what the evidence was. Williams stated
his vote to indict was based on TV commercials that he disliked and were run by a Texas business group in 2002 and not on any evidence presented to the grand jury.

"My decision was based upon those, not based upon what happened in the grand jury room," William Gibson told Austin radio station KLBJ. "They were stating their positions, and I could state my position by saying I don't like that."

Now you tell me. Based on that interview, should the grand jury foreman have been indicted and the charges against Tom DeLay dismissed? If you say no, then your view of what is right in the criminals justice system is pathetic.

If you did not know any of this, I would like to know what you think now?

As for the oft repeated statement that Ronnie Earle has prosecuted four times as many Democrats as Republicans, I would note that the citizens of Austin/Travis county are hugely Dem compared to the rest of Texas. On Nov 2nd, Republicans averaged 65% of the vote in statewide elections. In Travis county, Dems were averaging 54% of the vote. So it stands to reason that Ronnie Earle would indict more Dems in Travis county than Republicans, simply because there are many more Dems there than GOP.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 19, 2010 | 8:16 a.m.

Don, please review the allegations about DeLay's various activities and not just the case you cited at this Wikipedia article:

Is he innocent in all of these claims, or does this perhaps point to an overall pattern of behavior?

If you think DeLay is a saint, how about Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, and Bob Ney?

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 19, 2010 | 3:48 p.m.

John, you didn't comment on the jury shopping nor the grand jury foreman's conduct.

(Report Comment)
Philip Vassallo November 19, 2010 | 6:36 p.m.

Thanks, Big Brother, for turning me and millions of others into stark raving rabid Libertarians!! You are going to be very sorry you did that!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 19, 2010 | 7:48 p.m.

The appearance of jury shopping and the foreman's comments are troubling (but I would like to see links to both), but how many other people were on the third grand jury? The foreman couldn't indict by himself. What about the other DeLay (and other Republican) corruption cases I posted? And this one from today's AP?

No, seems to me that Democrats don't have a corner on corruption.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 20, 2010 | 2:25 p.m.

I see. Two grand juries refuse to indict, and a third whose foreman says he didn't care what the evidence was, is going to indict anyway really doesn't bother you much. And I'm sure those two other grand juries heard more evidence than what is posted on Wiki.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 20, 2010 | 11:52 p.m.

Don, I would like to see actual links to those stories before I render an opinion. For all I know, you're repeating WorldNewsDaily's gossip post of the week.

But then, you forget my original reason for commenting. Republicans are just as corrupt as Democrats on the national level. Otherwise how can you explain DeLay's other legal problems, and the other cases of Republican corruption that I mentioned? Continue to stick your fingers in your ears and yell LALALA if you like.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 21, 2010 | 12:02 p.m.

Here you go John. Right out of the Houston Chronicle. That's Houston's only metropolitan newspaper, and it's left wing leaning. Clay Robinson is about as anti Republican as you can get:

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop November 21, 2010 | 7:59 p.m.

John, I think the biggest difference between Republicans and Dems is that when our guys get caught in malfeasance, we say throw them in the pokey and get rid of the key if it's justified. On the other hand, Dems will reelect theirs and celebrate them as the best thing since sliced bread.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 17, 2011 | 11:48 a.m.

Tell the government to quit messing around and leave all the fries in your happy meals from now on. It really shows.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.