The Fried Logic of Food Police

Trans fat in fast food? Who knew?

Remember Caesar Barber, the New York maintenance worker who blamed McDonald’s for making him fat? “They said, ‘100 percent beef.’ I thought that meant it was good for you,” he claimed in July 2002.

Barber's story was harder to swallow than a super-sized Big Mac meal. So what are we to make of Arthur Hoyte, a retired physician from Rockville, Maryland, who is suing KFC because he thought fried chicken was a health food? In a lawsuit sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hoyte claims he had no idea the restaurant chain fries its food in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. “If I had known that KFC uses an unnatural frying oil, and that the food was so high in trans fat, I would have reconsidered my choices," he says.

Aren’t doctors supposed to be smart, at least when it comes to health-related issues? If Hoyte has no way of knowing about all the trans fat in KFC’s dishes, what chance do the rest of us have?

CSPI's would-be class action, based on Washington, D.C. consumer protection law, accuses the chain of failing to disclose “material facts” about its food and demands that it either stop using partially hydrogenated oil or post trans fat warning signs. According to CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson (who is not known for his rhetorical subtlety), KFC “recklessly puts its customers at risk of a Kentucky Fried Coronary” and is “making its unsuspecting consumers’ arteries Extra Crispy.” To support these claims, CSPI’s online statement links to three pages of nutritional information about the KFC menu.

But who is that bearded, white-haired gentleman in the upper left corner of each page in this damning indictment? It turns out the trans fat secrets Colonel Sanders is keeping from his customers—information so arcane even a medical specialist cannot reasonably be expected to know it—is contained in a “Nutrition Guide” on KFC’s Web site and on big, conspicuous posters in KFC outlets.

The use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil by restaurants is widely known; they switched to it after groups like CSPI complained about the animal fat and tropical oils they had been using. At the time, the new fat was thought to be healthier, but subsequent research has indicated it may in fact be worse. A man of medicine like Dr. Hoyte surely was aware of this development.

The problem, from CSPI’s point of view, is not that people don’t know about trans fat in KFC’s food but that they don’t care. If there were a big enough demand for trans-fat-free fried chicken, KFC would make the switch to nonhydrogenated vegetable oil (which costs more and has a shorter shelf life). But it’s possible that people who eat a lot of fried chicken don’t worry about the nutritional profile of their food.

As usual, CSPI does not like the choices consumers are making and wants businesses to follow its preferences instead. The organization brags about using the threat of a lawsuit to pressure the leading soda manufacturers into an agreement aimed at removing sugar-sweetened beverages from public schools—a deal that is not likely to have a noticeable impact on students’ waistlines but may inspire restrictions on adults, such as “junk-food-free” zones near schools. In Massachusetts, CSPI is threatening to sue Kellogg, maker of sugary breakfast cereals, and Viacom, owner of TV channels and cartoon characters used to market “nutritionally poor” food. CSPI argues that children are injured every time they see an ad for Apple Jacks or a box of SpongeBob SquarePants Pop-Tarts, whether or not their parents actually buy the product.

Each of these cases supposedly is about damage suffered and compensation owed. But the real goal is to impose CSPI’s ideas about a proper diet on consumers who have different values and priorities. If this is in “the public interest,” it’s an interest the public itself is too benighted to recognize.

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