Colonel Sanders goes to court

The fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is about to be sued over it's cooking methods.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit organisation acting in the public interest, is suing the food giant over it's continued use of partially hydrogenated oil, the chemically altered, trans-fat-laden oil that has been shown to contribute to as many 50,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

A suit has been filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia demanding that KFC be prohibited from using such oil, or at least be forced to post signs in all KFC outlets notifying customers that many KFC foods are high in trans fat.

CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson says cooking with partially hydrogenated oil, recklessly puts customers at risk of a 'Kentucky Fried Coronary'.

Trans fat is now known to be more harmful than saturated fat, since it simultaneously raises LDL cholesterol, which promotes heart disease, and lowers HDL cholesterol, which protects against it.

Much of the food at KFC is very high in trans fats, and although small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in beef and milk, almost 80 percent of Americans' trans fat comes from partially hydrogenated oils.

The new trans-fat labeling requirement by the FDA for packaged foods, has encouraged many manufacturers to switch to non-hydrogenated vegetable oil but restaurants have been much slower to act.

McDonald's which notoriously pledged to reduce trans fat in cooking oil in 2002, reneged on that promise in 2003 and it was only when a Californian lawyer sued the company over its broken promise that they agreed to pay $7 million to the American Heart Association.

McDonald's is yet to change its oil.

The fast-food chain Wendy's recently announced it was switching to a non-hydrogenated mixture of corn and soybean oil in its deep-fryers, making its fried foods virtually trans-fat-free and other chain restaurants have either stopped using partially hydrogenated oil in favor of canola oil, or have added more healthy items to their menus.

An ill-conceived and widely ridiculed advertising campaign designed to portray KFC fried chicken as a weight-loss aid and health food were withdrawn following a complaint filed to the Federal Trade Commission by CSPI.

Those ads-which Jacobson said "took the truth, dipped it in batter, and deep-fried it", were withdrawn after CSPI filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner says KFC should be forced to disclose to consumers that it uses the worst frying oil imaginable to prepare its chicken.

The lawsuit is asking the court to require KFC to switch to a less harmful frying oil or if that fails to place signs in restaurants that say "KFC's fried chicken and certain other foods contain trans fat, which promotes heart disease."

According to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, trans-fat levels at KFC vary widely around the world; for example KFC chicken and potato products in Spain, Portugal, and Denmark have far less trans fat than they do in the United States, Peru, or Poland. Hungary has the most while Denmark restricts the use of trans fat from hydrogenated oils to 2 percent of the fat in foods.

CSPI has resorted to litigation in order to get food companies to market their products more honestly and has recently successfully negotiated out-of-court settlements with Tropicana, Quaker, Frito-Lay, and Pinnacle Foods and was also instrumental in an agreement to get soda pop out of schools a deal brokered by former President Bill Clinton.

Next on the cards are Cadbury-Schweppes for rebranding 7UP as "all-natural" when it is not and the makers of a fungus-based meat substitute called Quorn for not informing consumers that the product can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, and breathing difficulties.

The CSPI and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood are having discussions with Kellogg about marketing junk food to young children and may ultimately sue that company and Viacom/Nickelodeon.

The CSPI however says it would prefer the trans-fat problem was solved through voluntary action by restaurants or regulatory action by the FDA, but as neither industry nor government has acted, litigation remains the only alternative.

Meanwhile the food manufacturer Whole Harvest has come up with the nation's first naturally processed no trans fat commercial cooking oil line produced without the use of blends or chemicals.

Recent FDA regulations mean that all food labels must now list trans fat contents by 2006, and the restaurant and foodservice industries have begun to look for low to no trans fat products which still hold up to traditional oils for flavor, feel and performance.

Whole Harvest oil apparently has an all-natural approach that does not involve hexane, a flammable solvent typically used in the production of most commercial cooking oils, contains no trans fats, and retains natural Omega-3's and Vitamin E.

It also apparently has an extended fry life in comparison to traditional oils.

As the oils are not hydrogenated they do not contain the harmful trans fatty acids that have been shown to play a key role in the development of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

New York City last year put out a call for its 20,000+ restaurants to voluntarily eliminate trans fats from their culinary offerings.

As the harmful qualities of trans fats are hot news, restaurant chains are becoming legal targets for their continued use of unhealthy cooking oil.

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