A nationwide campaign to remove artery-clogging trans fatty acids from the US food chain received another significant boost today, after popular fast food franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) announced it is to switch to non-trans cooking oil.
The move comes a year after food and beverage manufacturers battled to remove the fats from their products in time for new labeling regulations that required these feature on nutrition facts panels.
These massive reformulation efforts have this year been followed by moves in the food service sector. Starting with health-oriented food establishments pointing out to consumers that their products are free from the oils, the trans fat fetish began to spread to more mainstream chains. And moves by independent jurisdictions to require such labels in restaurants, or to ban the use of trans fats altogether, have also recently been seen in Chicago and New York.
Before KFC, other restaurant chains to slash trans fats include Wendy's, Ruby Tuesday, Chili's and Legal Sea Food.
Today's announcement reveals that KFC will convert to low linolenic soybean oil, which reduces the need for the trans fatty-acid producing hydrogenation process. The switch, to be made in all 5,500 KFC restaurants, is expected to be complete by April 2007.
Indeed, the move by KFC comes after a lawsuit filed against it in June for its use of undeclared trans fats.
The class action suit, filed in Superior Court in the District of Columbia, asks that the court prohibit KFC from using partially hydrogenated oil, or at least require signs warning consumers that many of its foods are high in trans fats.
Filed by a retired physician together with consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Washington DC law firm Heideman Nudelman & Kalik, the suit aims to increase awareness, following the 'if I had known I wouldn't have eaten it' line.
The foodservice was first challenged on this issue in 2003, when McDonald's was sued for reneging on its promise to reduce the amount of trans fats in its oils. That action resulted last year in an $8.5m settlement.
CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said McDonald's and Burger King should now follow KFC's lead.
"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."
The consumer advocacy group today said it is formally withdrawing from the lawsuit against KFC, although the law firm is due to continue the suit alone.
KFC's transition will impact the chain's most popular items, Original Recipe and Extra Crispy fried chicken, in addition to fried menu selections such as Crispy Strips, Wings, Boneless Wings, Buffalo and Crispy Snacker Sandwiches, Popcorn Chicken, Twisters and Potato Wedges.
Trans fatty acids - also known as trans fats - are formed when liquid vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated or 'hardened' for use as spreads such as margarine, cooking fats for deep-frying and shortening for baking. Foods high in trans or saturated fatty acids increase blood cholesterol levels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.
Trans fats first came into the public eye in 2003, when a lawsuit filed against Kraft Foods for the trans fat content of its Oreo cookies resulted in the firm reformulating its trademark product.