A US food safety organisation is suing Kentucky Fried Chicken for its use of a type of cooking oil that government scientists agree can be potentially damaging to consumers' health.
The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed the suit in Washington arguing that KFC, more than any other restaurant chain, relies on partly hydrogenated oils for its food. Those oils contain trans fat, a notoriously indigestible substance that food reformers have been campaigning to eliminate from the American diet.
According to the suit, a typical KFC Extra Crispy combo meal, containing a chicken drumstick, two wings, potato wedges and an American-style breakfast biscuit contains 15g of trans fat, more than anyone should consume in a week. CSPI is suing on behalf of all KFC consumers, with one named plaintiff, a retired doctor from Maryland who alleges he had no idea his purchases from KFC over the years were exposing him to trans fat-related health risks.
Ideally, the CSPI would like KFC to replace its partly hydrogenated oils with something less threatening - for instance, a blend of canola and palm oils, which other chains such as Wendy's are now adopting in response to public pressure. Failing that, the suit calls for KFC to post clear signs at its restaurants alerting customers to the presence of trans fat in its deep-fried chicken and fries.
"It's harder to avoid trans fat at KFC than at any other fast-food chain in America," CSPI's executive director, Michael Jacobson, said. "You can't tell by tasting or by looking at the food, but trans fat is almost everywhere on this menu ... CSPI would far prefer the trans-fat problem be solved through voluntary action ... but neither industry nor government has acted."
KFC has called the lawsuit "frivolous" and insists it complies fully with regulations. A supportive statement from a Washington group promoting "tort reform" - a euphemism for government action to restrict or prevent consumer lawsuits against industry - said the suit was troubling. "Their outrageous attempt to dictate through class-action litigation what type of cooking oil KFC uses exemplifies what's wrong with our legal system," said the US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.
As tobacco once was, trans fat has become the new big battleground. Research shows that it is more harmful even than saturated fat, because it both increases the level of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol and lowers the level of HDL, or "good" cholesterol. Three years ago, a California lawyer, Stephen Joseph, sued Kraft Foods over the trans fat content of its Oreo biscuits. The case did not even reach court before Kraft agreed to change the recipe.
Around the same time, McDonald's promised to reduce its use of trans fat, only to be slapped with a lawsuit by Mr Joseph when it failed to follow through on its promise. The company settled the suit in 2005, agreeing to post more explicit information for its customers.Reuse content