CNN — McDonald’s Step-It activity wristbands are being recalled due to risks of skin irritation or burns, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said Tuesday.
The recall came after McDonald’s received more than 70 reports of incidents — including seven reports of blisters — after wearing the wristbands. Twenty-nine million units in the United States and 3.6 million in Canada are being recalled.
Casey Collyar of Arkansas wrote on Facebook two weeks ago — before the recall — that her child was burned by the Happy Meal toy after playing with it for eight minutes. Her post was shared more than 130,000 times.
The recalled activity wristbands, found in Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals, come in two styles: “Activity Counter” and “Light-up Band,” and in six bright colors. Manufactured in China, the plastic wrist-worn pedometers measure steps and blink quickly or slowly depending on the pace of the person wearing one.
Last Wednesday, the company voluntarily removed the product, citing similar concerns.
“We have taken this swift and voluntary step after receiving limited reports of potential skin irritations that may be associated from wearing the band,” company spokeswoman Terri Hickey said in a statement to CNN. “Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers and we are fully investigating this issue.”
Consumers are advised to immediately return the fitness trackers to any McDonald’s for a free replacement toy and either a yogurt tube or bag of apple slices.
Healthy lifestyle promotion or crafty marketing?
The fast food giant’s plan to include the device sparked discussions on whether it would actually help promote healthier lifestyles among children or if it was just another crafty marketing strategy.
Dr. Lisa Thebner, a pediatrician in New York City, said that packaging Happy Meals with fitness trackers sends a message that physical activity is good for one’s health.
When getting Happy Meals, “it’s nice to be able to have something that encourages kids to be more active, instead of handing out a big ice cream cone along with it,” said Thebner.
Having observed her own children engaging in more physical activities because of trackers, Thebner said that “kids can be very competitive… There is certainly joy in getting those numbers up.”
Michelle Garrison, an associate professor of adolescent and child psychiatry at Seattle Children’s Hospital said there can be a benefit when families get into it together to achieve a combined goal, for example 10,000 steps. But otherwise, she notes the benefits from these devices are more often short lived. “Giving children fitness trackers may increase physical activity for a few weeks, but longer term change takes more than that,” she said.
Some research has pointed out the effectiveness of fitness trackers in getting young people moving. A 2009 study suggested that pedometers are useful for promoting physical activities among children and adolescents.
Jennifer A. Emond, assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, is skeptical of McDonald’s new toys, saying that it’s “not a credible way to promote healthy lifestyles to children.”
“It’s a common tactic used by food manufacturers. They promote their products alongside with healthy lifestyles,” said Emond. The danger of such a marketing strategy is that it diverts parents’ attention away from poor nutrition, making parents “feel better” by focusing more on the “energy out” side of the weight gain equation than considering energy intake.
She suggested that instead of feeding their children Happy Meals, parents might consider other affordable fitness tracker options, or “go for a walk, go to the park, play games with your family that promote fitness rather than going into a restaurant.”
McDonald’s has long faced criticism regarding low nutritional values in its food. In recent years, the company has been increasingly committed to improving its food quality, including introducing the low-fat Go-Gurt yogurt in 2014 and removing artificial preservatives from its chicken nuggets in August.
According to McDonald’s nutrition calculator, a Happy Meal with a kids’ fries, a cheeseburger, apple slices and a milk jug contains 530 calories and 20 grams of fat. It would take an average adult man who weighs 195 pounds about 90 minutes to walk off those calories, according to a calculator by the Calorie Control Council.
Garrison said there could be a mixed message, of sorts. “It does come across as an attempt at branding McDonald’s and Happy Meals as ‘healthy’ — and while they’ve made some improvements in that regard over recent years, there is still a long way to go.”