In what is likely to be a clear warning to food makers, McDonald's faces a damaging court case after a US public interest group accused the fast food giant of falling short of promises to remove artery clogging trans fats used in the cooking process.
BanTransFat.com , a Californian non-profit organisation, said it had filed a lawsuit against McDonald's for false advertising regarding a recent announcement that it would use a new cooking oil with 48 per cent less trans fat, and that the change would be completed by February 2003 for the company's global operations, serving 46 million people a day.
Trans fatty acids (TFAs) are formed when liquid vegetable oils go through a chemical process called hydrogenation. Common in a range of food products - biscuits, chips, doughnuts, crackers - the hydrogenated vegetable fat is used by food processors because it is solid at room temperature and has a longer shelf life.
But research suggests that trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, causing the arteries to become more rigid and clogged. An increase in LDL cholesterol levels can lead to heart disease.
Quoting the Harvard School of Public Health, BTF says 30,000 or more premature heart disease deaths are caused each year by trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils in food supplies.
"The lawsuit has nothing to do with obesity. Trans fats cause serious medical health problems other than obesity," explained BanTransFat.com.
According to the group, in September 2002 McDonald's issued a statement announcing "a significant reduction of trans fatty acids in its fried menu items - french fries, chicken McNuggets, Filet-O-Fish, Hash Browns and crispy chicken sandwiches - with the introduction of improved cooking oil in all of its 13,000 restaurants - a major step toward McDonald's goal of eliminating TFAs from its cooking oil. The new oil will reduce French fry TFA levels by 48 per cent, reduce saturated fat by 16 per cent and dramatically increase polyunsaturated fat by 167 per cent."
McDonald's said it had worked with ingredients supplier and agri-giant Cargill to find the right formula for the oil to be used in US restaurants.
But the anti-trans fat group claims that McDonald's has deliberately allowed the public to be misled. "Based on a document that we have received, McDonald's has spent a grand total of $457.50 to get the word out to the public that it has not changed the oil. Meanwhile, it has been reaping millions of dollars in additional profits from customers who believe that they are getting the new healthier oil."
The group said by changing to the new reduced trans fat cooking oil, McDonald's sales will not be adversely affected, noting that Doritos snack brand saw strong growth driven by Doritos Salsa last year and the move to remove all trans fats.
"McDonald's should see similar sales growth from changing to healthier oil. McDonald's will have a major competitive edge over its competitors. It's a win-win situation," said BTF.
In the lawsuit, BTF is asking the court to order that McDonald's take effective steps to inform its customers about its failure to make the change. BTF is also asking that McDonald's make the change to the new cooking oil as soon as possible, just as it promised and represented to the public.
In Europe and the US, food makers are under growing pressure from consumer groups to cut the trans fat content in food products. Last year Denmark became the first country in the world to ban trans fats from food products over fears these hydrogenated fats could contribute to heart disease. While the EU has yet to reach a position on the labelling of these artery-clogging fats, changes are likely as consumer bodies keep up the pressure for tougher labelling and call on industry to use alternatives.
And in the US, incoming rules mean that by 2006 food manufacturers will have to label the trans fat content.
"We have taken the decision to reduce trans fats levels to less than 1 per cent of total food energy, the level recommended by the World Health Organisation," a spokesperson for the Swiss food giant Nestlé recently told FoodNavigator.com.
The leading food company in the world said that their priority is to reduce the addition of TFAs into food products, pointing out that TFAs are also naturally present in relatively low levels in products containing full cream milk.
"We are looking to reduce the content by the end of the year," added the Swiss firm, confirming that new formulations are 'in the pipeline.'
Nestlé joins a raft of food makers - North American for the most part - that have already cut the trans fat content.
Kraft foods said earlier this year that it had launched a trans fat free version of its iconic Oreo biscuit. The move follows a court case against Kraft's owner Nabisco - which attracted massive media attention in the US - whereby BanTransFats called on the firm to remove the biscuits from sale because of the harm trans fats could cause to children.
The case was later withdrawn because the lawyer who filed the suit said the publicity surrounding the case accomplished what he set out to do: create awareness about the dangers of trans fat. Kraft is now leading the way in efforts to reduce trans fatty acids in food products.
"Kraft has an aggressive plan in place to reduce or eliminate trans fat levels in our cookie and cracker products by 2004-2005," said Kevin McGahren-Clemens, vice president, cookies.