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Trans-fat crusader sharpens focus for next battle

By Anthony Fletcher , 14-Oct-2005

The Californian attorney who sued both Kraft and McDonald's over trans-fats tells FoodNavigator-USA.com how he forced the issue onto the front pages, and what his next plan of action is.

Everyone now knows about trans fats. Food makers are desperately looking to remove the substance from their products before the 1 January labeling deadline, which will require all food companies to label the amount of trans-fat in their products.

And consumers are increasingly aware that trans fats have been negatively linked to raising blood cholesterol levels and promoting heart disease.

But without Stephen Joseph, it is likely that this issue would have remained dormant. It took an audacious lawsuit - seen by many as ridiculous at the time - to force the issue into the open.

In May 2003, he filed a lawsuit against Kraft, targeting the trans-fat content of Oreo's. The issue became front-page news. Jay Leno, Rush Limbaugh and a host of other media personalities weighed in. Joseph was on Good Morning America when he heard that Kraft had agreed to remove trans fats from their cookies amid the sudden blaze of publicity.

And two months later, the FDA announced new labeling rules.

It seems indicative of America that Joseph sought recourse through the courts rather than the government. As a former Washington lobbyist familiar with the set up and how things work on Capitol Hill, he firmly believes that this was his only effective route.

"Business is in control of Capitol Hill," he said. "Food companies control the playing field. Consumers don't get the attention they deserve."

But by 2003, trans fats had become a mainstream issue. Trans fat, formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine, had effectively been linked to higher blood levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol that increases the risk of heart disease.

Last month, Joseph enjoyed another victory. A Marin County judge finalized an $8.5 million settlement of a suit he filed against McDonald's in 2003 for reneging on its promise to reduce the amount of trans fat oils a year previously.

"In September 2002, McDonald's announced that it planned to reduce the trans fat content of its oil by 48 percent. Terrific. But then I picked up Consumer Reports in October 2003, which said that McDonald's had extended the time frame."

Joseph discovered that there was nothing on the corporation's website about this, and sued it for going back on its promise. As part if the settlement, McDonald's put notices in all its US restaurants in April 2005 stating that it hadn't changed its cooking oils after all.

More significantly, $7 million of the recently finalized settlement has gone to the American Heart Association to work on public education on trans fats. Nonetheless, Joseph remains determined to do more.

"The McDonald's case was not as successful as the Oreo's case in alerting the public," said Joseph. "They now understand about labeling, but not about cooking oil. The problem is now restaurants.

This is the real motivation for Joseph now. He says that his goal is to provide consumers with the facts so that they make healthy decisions not only when they shop, but also when they eat out.

"I'm not critical of the oil manufacturers. They're trying to get the situation organized. Cargill has done a good job with its new low lineolic oil, and so has Bunge. The problem is getting the public to realize that there is trans fats in cooking oil, and that they should ask two questions at a restaurant. One, what type of oil do you use and two, is it partially hydrogenated?"

He has already had some success. The Tiburon project, which involved 18 restaurants in the San Francisco area converting to trans fat-free oils and advertising this fact, has according to Joseph shown promising results.

This is where Joseph now intends to focus his efforts. He is fighting tall odds - according to the American Heart Association, 70.1 million Americans suffered from heart disease in 2002 (34.2 percent of the population), and the mortality figure was 0.93 million.

Joseph also has a personal reason for battling on. His stepfather, who died in 2001, was one of millions of consumers who watched what they ate, but didn't know about trans fats.

"My stepfather used to make me feel guilty,"said Joseph. "He was a slender man that would never order too much, but he ate margarine by the ton - partially hydrogenated soybean oil. He thought it was better than butter. But he developed Type II diabetes and died of a cardiac arrest.

"No one, myself included, thought there was any problem with margarine. He didn't know about trans fats. This was a guy who would have done something if he'd known."

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