The Yum Brands fried-chicken chain today said it will phase in a zero trans fat cooking oil at all of its 5,500 domestic restaurants by April, prompting the Center for Science in the Public Interest to withdraw a lawsuit against KFC.
KFC timed the announcement to coincide with a city hearing today in New York to debate a proposed ban on trans fats and revised menu labeling in restaurants. Once complete, the conversion to the new oil will be made to more than 65 products on KFC's menu, or about 80% of all selections, Gregg Dedrick, president of KFC Corp., said in a media briefing this morning.
Two years of tests
Following two years of testing, conversions that already have begun will include all company-owned and franchisee restaurants. While no significant flavor from the oil was obvious in chicken provided at the media briefing, the chicken tasted slightly bland.
A chicken breast or three chicken strips that typically contain 4.5 grams of trans fat per order will have zero. The switch doesn't apply to mostly prepared-food items, such as the Chicken Pot Pie, which has a whopping 14 grams of trans fat. Nor will some other products change, including biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, and the Ultimate Cheese Snacker.
With KFC's announcement, CSPI withdrew its suit against KFC, even though trans fats remain in some items. But the center also put some chains that haven't gotten rid of trans fats on notice. "What are McDonald's and Burger King waiting for now?" Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI executive director, said in a statement. "If KFC, which deep-fries almost everything, can get the artificial trans fat out of its frying oil, anyone can. Colonel Sanders deserves a bucket full of praise."
A spokesman for CSPI called today's announcement "a major victory for us."
Meanwhile, KFC said it is considering advertising about the shift, but hasn't decided whether it will create campaigns around it.
Last week, franchisees told Advertising Age that the chain recently announced internally that its domestic units were moving imminently from a solid shortening to a liquid format that would cut trans fats by at least half. One of those franchisees, John R. Neal, KFC's third-largest franchise owner, said he converted to the liquid format a few years ago in most of his restaurants and completed the switch in all of his units within the past two months. Franchisee leadership were informed of the zero trans fat conversion late Oct. 27 in an emergency conference call, Mr. Neal said.
Other fast-food chains
In June, No. 3 chain Wendy's switched to trans-fat-free fries and chicken, and McDonald's and Burger King are said to be testing trans-fat-free oils. Other chains, including Ruby Tuesday, Chili's and Legal Sea Food also have cut trans fats. Mr. Jacobson will testify to the New York City Board of Health supporting its trans fat proposals.
KFC has been working on finding an alternative to partially hydrogenated fats for two years. It has been testing food cooked in this new oil, a low-linolenic soybean oil, at restaurants in multiple markets, including New York, Atlanta, Chicago and the area around its Louisville, Ky., headquarters.
One of the challenges in making a change to from the partially hydrogenated soybean oil now in use at KFC restaurants, Mr. Dedrick said, is finding ample supply of the new oil. KFC is working with several suppliers, including Monsanto Corp., which are working suppliers growing the beans.
The cost of converting to the new oil, called a "slight investment" by Mr. Dedrick, who did not specify further, has already been factored into the company's operating costs and pricing will not change. The shifts are currently planned only in the U.S. market and are being considered for sibling chains. "I can tell you other members of Yum Brands are working on similar transitions," Mr. Dedrick said.