An influential consumer group wants to put KFC's fat in the fire.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to end KFC's use of partially hydrogenated oil in fried chicken and other dishes.
If it comes up short, the group wants the District of Columbia Superior Court, where the suit was filed, to order KFC to post signs notifying customers that many of the chain's foods are high in trans fat. Such artery-clogging fat is found in abundance in partially hydrogenated oil.
"By frying in such a dangerous oil, KFC is making its unsuspecting consumers' arteries extra crispy," said Michael F. Jacobson, the group's executive director, in a reference to one of the chain's popular menu items.
The suit, which seeks class-action status, marks a change of tactics for the Washington-based organization, which gained a reputation as the "food police" in the 1990s when it declared fettuccine Alfredo "a heart attack on a plate" and publicized the fat, calorie and sodium content of Italian food and other tasty ethnic cuisines.
Jacobson said other large chains, including Dunkin' Donuts and Denny's, that rely on partially hydrogenated oils are potential targets for litigation.
KFC, a unit of Lexington, Ky.-based Yum Brands Inc., called the lawsuit "frivolous."
"All KFC products are safe to eat and meet or exceed all government regulations," the chain said in a statement. "We provide a variety of menu choices and provide nutrition information, including trans fat values, on our website and in our restaurants so consumers can make informed choices before they purchase our products."
Partially hydrogenated oils are used extensively in the restaurant business because they have a long shelf life and are well suited for cooking crispy, crunchy foods, said Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University. Despite the versatility and pleasing taste of the oils, there is a broad scientific consensus that trans fats are unhealthy, contributing to high cholesterol and heart disease, Kris-Etherton said.
"We keep getting more and more research that they are bad. We have to get them out of the food supply," she said.
Strict labeling requirements have reduced the popularity of trans fats in packaged foods, but restaurants don't have to adhere to the same rules, she said. Most of the big restaurant chains remain major users of trans fats. However, Wendy's International Inc. said Thursday that it would begin frying its French fries and breaded chicken items with non-hydrogenated oil.
"Grilled, baked or roasted chicken is a healthy food, and even fried chicken can be trans-fat-free," Jacobson said. "But coated in breading and fried in partially hydrogenated oil, this otherwise healthy food becomes something that can quite literally take years off your life."
Just one Extra Crispy breast has 4.5 grams of trans fat, according to KFC. A large order of Popcorn Chicken has 7 grams of trans fat, and its Pot Pie contains 14 grams of trans fat.
The three-piece Extra Crispy combo meal, which includes a drumstick, two thighs, potato wedges and a biscuit, totals 15 grams of trans fat, according to the center's calculations. That's more trans fat than an individual should consume in a week, Jacobson said.
Arthur Hoyte, a retired physician from Rockville, Md., and the plaintiff in the case, said he had purchased fried chicken at KFC outlets in Washington not knowing that KFC fries in partially hydrogenated oil.
The advocacy group is using a District of Columbia law that allows consumers to seek relief from the courts when companies fail to disclose essential facts about their products, Jacobson said. The lawsuit asks for attorney's fees and monetary damages, which could amount to $1,500 per violation. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is listed as one of the attorneys and presumably would share in any fees awarded.
But spokesman Jeff Cronin said, "That is not what we are after. We are just trying to change their practices. The damages are an afterthought."
An attempt to make such a case a class-action lawsuit represents "a novel piece of litigation," said R. Bruce Duffield, an attorney with the Bryan Cave law firm who specializes in defending class-action suits.
"Hoyte has not claimed injury. He has not claimed he is sick because of eating KFC. This food was fit to be consumed. I don't know what the damages are here," Duffield said.
Publicizing the health dangers of trans fats is probably not worthy of litigation, said Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
"There's hardly a food company in the world that isn't trying to get trans fats out of its products, and I think consumer pressure will take care of that," Ayoob said.
Yet according to one market research firm, there's little evidence consumers are interested in giving up extra-crispy fried chicken and large orders of fries.
The NPD Group said that 94% of adult respondents in a recent survey were aware of the health issues surrounding trans fats. At the same time, Americans are gobbling more trans-fatty foods when they eat out.
"Sales of a number of the restaurant foods containing trans fats are growing, such as fried-chicken sandwiches, crackers and cookies," NPD said, with fried-chicken sales increasing the fastest.