County officials in Silicon Valley trying to curb childhood obesity voted Tuesday to ban restaurants from giving away toys and other freebies that often come with high-calorie meals aimed at kids.
The ordinance is largely symbolic as it would only cover unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County, meaning only about a dozen fast-food outlets and several other family-owned restaurants would be affected.
But its chief sponsor says it's still important because it paves the way for other areas to act, may spur action by fast-food chains to offer healthier choices and can help parents by taking away a child's incentive for wanting less healthy food.
"This ordinance does not attack toys. Obviously, toys, in and of themselves, do not make children obese," said county Supervisor Ken Yeager, who pushed for the ban. "But it is unfair to parents and children to use toys to capture the tastes of children when they are young to get them hooked on eating high-sugar, high-fat foods early in life."
The ban, which faces a final vote next month, would prohibit restaurants from giving away an incentive item, like a toy, with a meal that contains more than 485 calories, more than 600 milligrams of sodium and excessive amounts of fat and sugars.
Efforts to trim high calorie food from children's plates have been made all over the nation, most recently in a campaign led by first lady Michelle Obama. One in three American children is overweight or obese.
County supervisors said restaurants encourage children to choose specific menu items by linking them with free toys and other incentives. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that about $360 million was spent in 2006 on toys that were included in kids' meals.
A 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest showed that 10 out of 12 meals that came with toys exceeded the recommended caloric limits for children, Yeager said.
The California Restaurant Association lobbied against the ordinance saying it was misguided and another example of government overreaching. The organization placed ads in local newspapers against the ordinance and conducted a poll they said showed that an overwhelmingly number of county residents opposed such a measure.
"The people of Santa Clara County believe they are in a better position to make decisions about what to feed their kids than politicians are," said Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the organization that represents 22,000 restaurants in California.
Conway said fast-food chains already offer healthy options for children, including milk, carrot sticks, apple slices and whole grains. He said the ordinance looked like a simplistic attention-grabbing move rather than a comprehensive, thoughtful effort to curb a serious problem.
He also worried that such an ordinance would create safety issues in restaurants where children want a toy but can't have one because the combination of food items they've chosen doesn't meet the regulations.
"We don't want to have incidents in restaurants where an employee has to enforce these laws and parents get mad and children get upset," he said.
A spokesman for McDonald's Corp. said the company was disappointed in the ordinance but it does not affect any of its stores in Santa Clara County.
"Concerning this ordinance, parents tell us they want to have the right to make their own decisions. Our customers are smart, and they will continue to make choices that are right for them," said Walt Riker, a McDonald's spokesman.
Miguel Piedra, a spokesman for Burger King, referred all questions to the restaurant association and said he believed the company did not have any stores in the affected area but wasn't sure. According to a list from the county, there is one Burger King in the unincorporated area that would be affected.
The county public health department would be responsible for enforcing the ordinance. A restaurant would face fines of $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second and up to $1,000 for subsequent violations.
Yeager said the aim is to help direct parents to more healthy choices. He said the government has a responsibility to keep kids safe, and cited rules on car seats, cribs and other baby items as examples where the policymakers step in to regulate products.
If passed on the second reading May 11, it would take effect 90 days later. Restaurants can still modify the proposal by suggesting alternatives that would need supervisor approval.