Col. Sanders goes for an oil change

Pressured by health advocates, lawsuit, KFC to abandon most trans fats by 2007

October 31, 2006|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,sun reporter

Au Bon Pain was among the first to flip. Then came Panera Bread, California Pizza Kitchen and Wendy's.

Now, Kentucky Fried Chicken has responded, too.

Under pressure from health advocates and peers - as well as a lawsuit filed by a retired Maryland doctor - KFC announced plans yesterday to eliminate most artery-clogging trans fat from its food by April 2007, swapping for a healthier oil that executives say doesn't compromise the finger lickin' quality.

"We think Colonel Sanders would be proud," KFC Corp. President Gregg Dedrick said in a statement.

The fried chicken franchise is following a health trend within the restaurant industry, which has taken flak for everything from portion sizes to marketing aimed at children. Trans fats, particularly the artificial kind found in "partially hydrogenated" oil, are the latest cause, with groups criticizing their use and getting results.

FOR THE RECORD - A reference in an article yesterday about food companies' use of trans fat oils misidentified the fast food chain that was sued by a retired Maryland doctor and has spent two years searching for an alternative fat. It should have said KFC.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Kraft removed trans fats from Oreos after being sued in 2003 and has since reduced or eliminated it from most everything else. Ditto with foods prepared at The Cheesecake Factory, Ruby Tuesday, Chili's, Legal Sea Foods, and - soon - foods served at Walt Disney Co. theme parks.

"It's just a matter of time before all the major restaurants address this issue," said Jie Zhang, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Increased media attention and efforts to ban the fats are ramping up the stakes, Zhang said, with entire regions looking to make trans-fat free a food requirement. The 18 restaurants in California's Tiburon - a city on the San Francisco Bay -have voluntarily purged trans fat from their menus. And New York City, which held hearings on the topic yesterday, is considering doing the same through legislation.

Still, there are some notable holdouts. Burger King's menu contains foods high in trans fats, as does the menu at McDonald's, which four years ago hyped plans to switch to lower trans fat oils but never did.

"McDonald's is committed to significantly reducing [trans fatty acids] in our cooking oil. We have been researching and testing oil alternatives and are encouraged with the progress we're making," Dr. Catherine Adams, a vice president of food quality, safety and nutrition for McDonald's, said in a statement.

Burger King said much the same in a statement issued by North American franchise president Chuck Fallon, who called identifying alternative oils for fried foods the company's "first priority." The chain has been searching for two years and expects to test some healthier oils in its restaurants within the next three months.

Oils containing trans fats were actually considered good once, put into widespread use in the 1990s to replace oils high in unhealthy saturated fats. It's only in the past few years that nutritionists have learned trans fats, often found in cookie shortening and french fry oil, may be worse.

"[It's] the worst kind of fat, far worse than saturated fat," according to BanTransFat.com, a California nonprofit founded by Stephen L. Joseph, the attorney who sued over Oreos and received a settlement from McDonald's when the company didn't switch oils as promised.

Trans fat is thought to contribute to everything from blocked arteries to heart disease and related deaths, and health institutions recommend that its consumption be limited to under 2 grams per day - roughly the amount in a Whopper - though 0 grams is even better. Since January, food labels have carried trans fat content.

"Our industry has been looking at this issue to see where they can make some changes in their menus to remove trans fat and not change the taste and quality," said Donna Garren, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs at Washington's National Restaurant Association.

"It's not something you can just flip a switch and make happen," Garren said. "It does take time."

Wendy's has been working on it for two years, according to the company, which was sued this summer by a retired Rockville physician working with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI.

In the suit, filed in Washington civil court, Dr. Arthur Hoyte says "KFC does not need to use partially hydrogenated oil in its restaurants, and should forthwith cease and desist from this practice."

CSPI, which was acting as co-counsel in the case, dropped out yesterday, applauding KFC's move. But Hoyte, who referred calls to his attorney, plans to soldier on.

"The case is moving forward in court, and we'll see what happens," said Tracy Kalik, one of the lawyers on Hoyte's legal team.

At a KFC on St. Paul Street in Baltimore yesterday, Floyd Best junior and senior ate lunch together. The father and son team was less concerned about trans fat than flavor.

"The trans fats are in the food because people like the way it tastes." said Best Sr. "You don't have to eat here if you don't want to."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tyeesha Dixon contributed to this article.

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