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Newsom Veto-Happy on Happy Meals

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Supervisors bill to limit McDonald's Happy Meals gets slapped down, but supes vow to override

Mayor Gavin Newsom on Friday vetoed the Happy Meal ban advanced this week by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, calling the bill a “dangerous” intrusion into “private sector decision-making.”

Newsom’s veto, which was largely symbolic, came several days after the San Francisco board passed, by a veto-proof 8-3 supermajority, a measure that would forbid the sale of high-calorie meals packaged with toys but lacking fruits and vegetables—such as the immensely popular Happy Meals sold by McDonald’s.

The legislation, sponsored by Supervisor Eric Mar and the first of its kind in the country, has attracted national media attention and criticism from McDonald’s, restaurant groups and pundits from across the political spectrum, who condemned it as an instance of legislative overreach.

Newsom, speaking at Fairmount Elementary School in the Outer Mission neighborhood on Friday, distanced himself from the bill, which he called too “prescriptive.”

Instead, the mayor on Friday touted the city’s progress with its Shape Up program, which has received state funding to educate schoolchildren about nutrition, as an example of the appropriate role of government.

“The government should be in the business of educating,” Newsom said, “not dictating or prescribing exactly how you can provide a meal.”

Newsom, who is the lieutenant governor-elect, said he would work to convince one or two supervisors to reverse their positions before the bill is finally ratified next Tuesday. One of the considerations, he added, was that the ban would reinforce the city’s enduring reputation as an overbearing “nanny state” — an attack that Newsom’s Republican opponent used against him during his statewide race.

“All over the world, people are talking about the ban--and not favorably,” Newsom said. “I don’t think it helps San Francisco’s reputation.”

But Bevan Dufty, a moderate supervisor who is frequently seen as a swing vote on the board, said he would not be swayed by Newsom’s plea and suggested there was some degree of hypocrisy in the position taken by the outgoing mayor.

“Wasn’t the mayor significantly involved in banning soda?” Dufty said Friday, referring to another well-known city measure that banned vending machines from carrying soft drinks on city property. “It seems like the city had been very involved in trying to change the trend toward childhood obesity.”

Dufty, who will be a mayoral candidate in the 2011 election, said he based his position on conversations with teenage mothers in the city as well as recent reports.

“I’ll take the ridicule,” Dufty said. “But I honestly think that this is a huge industry that really needs to put the energy into promoting health.”

This week, Yale researchers released a study showing that the fast-food industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising in 2009 and that pre-schoolers today are exposed to a quarter more fast-food ads than in 2003 while older children see 34 percent more.

Restaurants have until December 2011 to conform to the measure’s precise guidelines or pull meals that come packaged with toys.

According to the bill, the meals may not exceed 600 calories, and fat cannot contribute 35 percent or more of the calories. The meals may not contain more than 640 milligrams of sodium or 0.5 milligrams of trans fat. Meals would also have to contain half a cup of fruit and three-fourths a cup of vegetables.

In a statement this week, a McDonald's spokeswoman called the measure "disappointing," saying: "It's not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for."

McDonald’s is expected to file a legal challenge to the measure.

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