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FTC Probing 3 Chains' 'Low-Fat' Menus

Restaurants: Panel targets Big Boy, Chili's and TGI Friday's. Companies say their nutritional claims will hold up.

May 01, 1996|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission has opened a preliminary investigation of at least three popular restaurant chains to determine whether they are misleading diners about entrees advertised as low-fat.

The Chicago regional office of the FTC has asked Big Boy, Chili's and TGI Friday's for promotional materials about the dishes to "determine whether additional investigation is warranted," according to copies of letters dated April 9 and obtained Tuesday by Associated Press.

The agency, which regulates advertising, is trying to determine whether the restaurants are misrepresenting the fat content of items touted as low-fat, as consumer group the Center for Science in the Public Interest has alleged, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

In keeping with its practice, the FTC declined to comment.

Representatives for the restaurant chains said they were cooperating fully with the FTC and were certain that the claims for their low-fat fare would withstand the government scrutiny.

In the case of Chili's, which has more than 400 restaurants in the United States and abroad, including Southern California, the FTC is seeking information about its "Guiltless" line of entrees, including its chicken dishes and vegetable pasta.

Harry Day, spokesman for Brinker International, the Dallas-based parent of Chili's, said product samples are tested monthly "to ensure that the product that the customer is getting meets our advertised guidelines."

He added that the fat content may vary slightly from dish to dish because they are prepared to order.

"Because that's the case, there's going to be some variation every time it's prepared," Day said. "Our chefs are only human."

Tony Michaels, vice president of marketing for Elias Bros. Restaurants Inc. of Warren, Mich., owner of the Big Boy trademark, said items promoted under the "Health Smart" banner are tested by nutritionists and microbiologists before they appear on the menu. The company has 600 Big Boy restaurants in the United States and abroad, he said.

"We have a rock-solid program," Michaels said.

Amy Heiny, spokeswoman for Friday's Hospitality Worldwide, the Dallas parent of the 308 TGI Friday's establishments in the United States, said the company is "confident that the information on our menus is accurate and truthful."

The FTC action comes after a December study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that found as much as twice as much fat in entrees the restaurants advertised as "lite" or "healthy."

Bruce Silverglade, the CSPI's legal affairs director, said the findings and subsequent FTC investigation underscore the need for pending Food and Drug Administration regulations regarding health claims on restaurant menus.

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