The Center for Science in the Public Interest has joined class-action attorneys Heideman Nudelman & Kalik in the suit, filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, asking the court to either bar KFC from using partially hydrogenated oil or at least post signs in KFC outlets notifying customers that many of its foods are "startlingly" high in trans fat.
Like most restaurant chains, the Yum Brands unit has promoted its menu variety and nutritional postings as evidence of its efforts to provide consumer choice. Yet it's "harder to avoid trans fat at KFC than at any other fast-food chain in America," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement. "CSPI would far prefer the trans-fat problem be solved through voluntary action by restaurants or regulatory action by the FDA, but neither industry nor government has acted."
The group said one Extra Crispy chicken breast has 4.5 grams of trans fat, while a pot pie contains 14 grams, and a three-piece Extra Crispy combo meal with a drumstick, two thighs, potato wedges and a biscuit carries 15 grams, more than what CSPI said a consumer should take in during a week.
"This is a frivolous lawsuit completely without merit, and we intend to vigorously defend our position," a KFC spokeswoman said in a statement. "All KFC products are safe to eat, and meet or exceed all government regulations, and we take health and safety issues very seriously. We provide a variety of menu choices and provide nutrition information, including trans-fat values, on our website and in our restaurants so consumers can make informed choices before they purchase our products."
She added that the chain has been reviewing alternative oil options, "but there are a number of factors to consider, including maintaining KFC's unique taste and flavor of Colonel Sanders' Original Recipe, supply availability, and transportation, among others."
The suit charges that KFC's advertising, which says it provides "the best food" and its products can be part of a healthy diet, is wrong because it hasn't eliminated trans fats.
The case was filed on behalf of retired physician Arthur Hoyte, of Rockville, Md., who claimed he purchased fried chicken at KFC outlets in Washington and elsewhere without knowing KFC fries its food in partially hydrogenated oil.
D.C. law requires disclosures
CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner said the case was filed under a District of Columbia ordinance that requires disclosures.
"District of Columbia law allows consumers to seek relief from the courts when companies fail to disclose essential facts about their products," he said. "That KFC uses the worst frying oil imaginable to prepare its chicken is something that KFC should absolutely be required to disclose at the point of purchase."
A number of marketers have responded to legal and regulatory pressure by changing their cooking oils to remove or reduce trans fats, but restaurants have struggled with changes that affect their famous recipes. McDonald's recently admitted it spoke too soon when in 2002 it promised to cut the trans fats in its cooking oil. The chain last year agreed to pay $7 million to the American Heart Association as part of an out-of-court settlement over reneging on the vow. Today, the chain is still testing oils in several locations to find the right fat recipe while maintaining its flavor profile. Last week, Wendy's said it would switch to a cooking-oil combination that was trans-fat-free. Ruby Tuesday switched to canola oil.
CSPI's charge into legal arena
The court case is the latest example of CSPI's move to the legal arena to try to win changes it hasn't been able to get in Congress. CSPI announced earlier that it was planning to sue Viacom's Nickelodeon and Kellogg under Massachusetts' consumer protection law for advertising high-sugar products to children. The suit's filing has been delayed because Kellogg is in discussions with CSPI over advertising changes.
Following the announcement of the suit, the business-backed Center for Consumer Freedom issued a statement supporting KFC and slamming the CSPI for its "press-conference lawsuit" intended to "use litigation to restrict food choices and shake down food companies."