June 13, 2006

Group Sues to Stop Use of Unhealthy Fat

By Lisa Richwine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. consumer group sued the operator of the KFC fried chicken restaurant chain on Tuesday to try and force it to stop frying foods in an artery- clogging fat.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a suit filed against Yum Brands Inc., said some KFC meals were "startlingly" high in harmful trans fat from the partially hydrogenated oils used for frying.

CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson said it was harder to avoid trans fat at KFC than at other fast-food restaurants.

"Trans fat is almost everywhere on this menu. By frying in such a dangerous oil, KFC is making its unsuspecting consumers' arteries Extra Crispy," he said, referring to a version of fried chicken sold by KFC.

The suit, which KFC called frivolous, seeks to force the chain to stop cooking with trans fat or prominently warn customers about the health hazard in the restaurants.

KFC "does not properly warn, disclose or even tell consumers that they are eating food items prepared with the worst oil available," CSPI said in a legal complaint filed in Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

The group asked the court to order KFC to switch to a healthier frying oil. If that is ruled out, CSPI said the court should require signs at KFC outlets saying "KFC fried chicken and certain other foods contain trans fat, which promotes heart disease."

KFC spokeswoman Laurie Schalow said the company provided trans fat values and other nutrition details on its Web site and in restaurants and that all KFC products were safe to eat.

"This is a frivolous lawsuit completely without merit and we intend to vigorously defend our position," she said.

The company has been reviewing alternative oils, but must consider a number of issues such as availability, transportation and maintaining its chicken's taste, she added.

CSPI said a typical three-piece combo meal with an Extra Crispy chicken drumstick, two Extra Crispy thighs, potato wedges and a biscuit contained 15 grams of trans fat.

Health experts suggest minimizing trans fat consumption as much as possible. Research shows it raises LDL or "bad" cholesterol, while lowering HDL, the "good" cholesterol.

Last week, No. 3 U.S. burger chain Wendy's International Inc. said it would significantly cut trans fat from its menu by switching to a new blend of corn and soy oil for french fries and breaded chicken items. McDonald's Corp. vowed in 2002 to remove trans fat from its french fries in the United States but has not done so.

CSPI, often nicknamed the "food police," is known for campaigning against high-calorie and high-fat fare.

The industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom said CSPI had filed the suit simply to generate media coverage.

"Any judge unfortunate enough to be burdened with this court-clogging sham should have the good sense to throw CSPI out of court," said Center for Consumer Freedom research analyst J. Justin Wilson.

Yum Brands, based in Louisville, Kentucky, also operates the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell fast-food chains.

Yum shares fell 6 cents to $50.43 in early afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in New York)