In 2006, Wendy's became the first big fast-food chain to switch away from trans fat. McDonald's, which was sued in 2003 for still using artificial trans fat frying oil despite a 2002 promise to phase it out, has begun using trans-fat-free oil in some cities and plans to complete its conversion by the end of 2008. Starbucks replaced the partially hydrogenated oil in almost all of its pastries after news of a potential CSPI lawsuit was reported. Last month, KFC announced that it completed its conversion to trans-fat-free deep-frying, a move accelerated in part by a CSPI-initiated lawsuit, which the group withdrew from after KFC announced its intentions.
While Burger King will comply with new requirements in New York City and Philadelphia not to use artificial trans fat in those cities, diners in the rest of the country will be subjected to high levels of trans fat.
"Despite the moves of its competitors and the well-known dangers of artificial trans fat, it is unfortunate that Burger King is still using partially hydrogenated oil in fried foods and other menu items," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Some of its meals contain three, four, or five times as much trans fat as is safe to consume in an entire day. I hope that this lawsuit will spur Burger King to quickly eliminate the trans fat and, in the meantime, to warn its customers that it's there."
Numerous fried and non-fried foods at Burger King have alarming levels of trans fat, according to CSPI. A King-size Onion Rings has 6 grams of trans fat. A regular-size order of Chicken Tenders with a large order of French fries has 8 grams of trans. A Sausage Biscuit with a large order of Hash Browns has an astounding 18 grams of trans fat -- more than someone should consume in 9 days.
Unlike other fats, the artificial trans fats found in partially hydrogenated oil exact a double whammy on arteries by raising the LDL ("bad") cholesterol and simultaneously lowering the HDL ("good") cholesterol. Increasing trans fat consumption by just 2 percent of calories is associated with as much as a 23 percent increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. Both the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and the American Heart Association recommend getting no more than 1 percent of calories from trans fat, which works out to just two grams of trans fat for someone on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. That two grams is about what one could expect from the smaller amounts of naturally occurring trans fat in milk and meat products, leaving virtually no room for anything partially hydrogenated, according to CSPI.
This week, Montgomery County, Md., became the first county in the country to enact regulations phasing out artificial trans fat in restaurants, and Albany County, N.Y.'s legislature passed a similar law that is expected to be approved soon by the county executive. Several months ago, New York City and Philadelphia became the first cities to pass laws getting artificial trans fat out of restaurants operating there. New York's regulation begins to take effect for deep-frying in July.
CSPI will be represented in its lawsuit by Stephen Gardner, its litigation director, with Steven N. Berk of the law firm of Chavez & Gertler acting as co-counsel. The suit charges that Burger King is in violation of the District of Columbia's Consumer Protection Procedures Act by selling foods laden with trans fat and by failing to let consumers know -- an omission that misleads the public assuming the items are safe.
Burger King has more than 7,300 U.S. locations, and global sales of more than $11 billion.
"Virtually every major restaurant chain in the country is working overtime to replace artificial trans fats with healthier oils, but Burger King can't be bothered," said Gardner. "Litigation has proven to be an effective means at accelerating the pace with which restaurant chains are getting rid of trans fat, and we hope the court brings Burger King to his senses in this case."
From the May 23, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash