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Lawyer Who Took On Oreos and McDonald's Fights On in Food War

Stephen Joseph's suits over trans fat, linked to heart ills, have garnered criticism but also have led to product changes.

September 25, 2005|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Some see Stephen Joseph -- the man behind much-ridiculed lawsuits against McDonald's and Oreo cookies -- as just another lawyer hustling for a buck.

To many consumer advocates, however, he is a crusader who has done as much to publicize the health dangers in some popular foods as the federal government.

In any case, no one can deny that Joseph has achieved results.

Two years ago, the Tiburon, Calif., attorney sued Kraft Foods Inc. over the shortening it used in Oreos. Within days, Kraft agreed to reformulate the cookies, eliminating the oil that contained trans fat, which can raise harmful cholesterol levels.

And last month, a Marin County Superior Court judge finalized an $8.5-million settlement of a suit he filed against McDonald's Corp. for reneging on a much-ballyhooed promise in 2002 to reduce the amount of trans fat in the oil used to cook its French fries, Chicken McNuggets and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

The Oreos lawsuit inspired a top-10 list from David Letterman, a rant by Rush Limbaugh and a flood of nasty e-mails. The lawsuit also made his two children "distraught," Joseph said, for fear their schoolmates would discover their dad was gunning for a food icon.

But in the wake of the McDonald's settlement, the jokes and the vitriol are dying down. The money will fund a multimillion-dollar initiative by the American Heart Assn. to draw attention to the dangers of trans fat. As part of the deal, McDonald's also has spent $1.5 million posting signs in its 13,000 U.S. restaurants telling customers that their frying oil still contains trans fat. On top of that, Joseph stands to receive $2 million in legal fees from the lawsuit.

To some tort-reform advocates, Joseph's run against Kraft and McDonald's is a classic example of litigation gone wild.

The suits demonstrated "how the civil justice system can be misused," said John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Assn. of California.

But Joseph, who insists "business controls Capitol Hill," sees the courts as offering the only "level landscape for ordinary people to get justice."

A growing number of nutritionists are cheering him on. "Good for him," said Charlotte Neumann, a UCLA public-health professor. Trans fats are "very bad," she said. They're "wrecking arteries and contributing to heart disease."

His all-consuming focus on the danger of trans fat notwithstanding, the British-born 51-year-old is no kook in Birkenstocks. He easily could be mistaken for a Century City attorney in a sport coat, dress slacks and open-collared shirt.

And he's no vegan either. "I'm not part of the nuts-and-seeds crowd at all," he laughed. "That stuff tastes like hell. I want a good-tasting meal that I look forward to, not dread."

He moved his family to the Bay Area in 1997, opening a small commercial law practice that he still maintains, working out of his house. Joseph is reticent about his private life, declining to meet a reporter at his home and uncomfortable discussing his family or his legal work outside of trans-fat cases.

Many people know him more by reputation than personally. An exception is Ellen Davenport, co-owner of the California Rice Oil Co., a business based in nearby Novato that makes a trans-fat-free alternative.

"I like him," Davenport said. "He's a quirky guy, but we get along and we believe in the same thing. Somebody's got to get the word out."

Joseph says his worries about Oreos and French fries are based on solid science. Indeed, most nutrition experts agree that trans fat, still ubiquitous in commercial baked goods, crackers and fried foods, raises the risk of heart attacks by clogging arteries and lowering the incidence of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol.

The Food and Drug Administration has advised consumers since 2002 to keep their consumption of trans fat as low as possible. Beginning in January, the agency will require food labels to list the amount of trans fat in a serving.

Some food manufacturers already post this information on their product labels and in recent years several companies, including PepsiCo Inc.'s Frito-Lay and Campbell Soup Co.'s Pepperidge Farm, voluntarily reduced or eliminated the trans fat in their products.

Joseph says that his goal is to provide consumers with the facts so they can make healthy decisions when they shop or eat out. "There's no freedom of choice if you have no information," he said.

But his lawsuits and his website -- www.bantransfat.com -- seem aimed at banishing the substance he bluntly calls "lethal" from grocery shelves.

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