Fast food giant McDonalds has agreed to pay $8.5 million (€6.6m) to settle a lawsuit over artery-clogging trans fats in its cooking oils.
The firm will donate $7 million to the American Heart Association and spend another $1.5 million to inform the public of its trans fat plans.
The settlement is the result of action by a small US activist group called BanTransFat.com against McDonalds.
The San-Francisco activists challenged that although McDonalds had announced it would voluntarily change to a cooking oil with less trans fat by February 2003, the firm had failed to make the switch, and had neglected to inform the public of this status quo.
"This was the goal of the lawsuit filed by BanTransFats.com, which is being fully achieved through this settlement," the group said last week, announcing details of the McDonalds pay-out.
Partial hydrogenation is an industrial process that changes the molecular configuration and properties of oils used for baking, frying, shelf-life, and other purposes. But partial hydrogenation creates trans fatty acids (TFAs) in the oil.
Mounting evidence suggests TFAs raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, causing the arteries to become more rigid and clogged. An increase in LDL cholesterol levels can lead to heart disease, the number one killer disease.
With the threat of litigation more prominent, the outcome of the McDonalds settlement will push global food makers, and foodservice operators, towards slicing the partially hydrogenated oils out of their formulations.
However, largely in response to pressure from consumer groups, food makers have already started to remove the TFAs from a variety of food products.
The number one food company in the world told FoodNavigator.com recently that it had embarked on a process to cut the TFA's from its products.
"We have taken the decision to reduce trans fats levels to less than 1 per cent of total food energy, the level recommended by the World Health Organisation," said a spokesperson for food giant Nestlé.
The Swiss firm said their priority was to reduce the presence of TFAs in food products, pointing out that TFAs are also naturally present in relatively low levels in products containing full cream milk.
"We are looking to reduce the content by the end of 2004," added the Swiss firm, confirming that new formulations are 'in the pipeline.'
Leaping on the new market opportunity, ingredients manufacturers are rolling out alternative speciality oils.
Earlier this month, Germany's Bayer CropScience and US firm Cargill announced a link-up of technologies on seed development to create a new oil, for launch by 2007.
"Bayer CropScience will provide its InVigor line of hybrid rapeseed high-yielding seed and Cargill, the 'desirable oil traits' for producing high oleic rapeseed oil,"a spokesperson at Bayer CropScience explained to FoodNavigator.com.
Cargill and Bayer CropScience will join other oil giants in the battle for market share.
Last year US firms Dow AgroSciences, Bunge and DuPont all launched their various brands of zero or low trans fat oil.
Market analysts Frost and Sullivan recently rewarded Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) for the development of its NovaLipid line of free and low trans fat products, produced using an enzymatic inter-esterification technology.
In June 2004, ADM told the market that, over the next year, it would expand its NovaLipid line at its Quincy, Illinois enzyme inter-esterification facility because of increasing market demand.
New legislation is also pushing demand for alternatives. Incoming rules in the US mean that by 1 January 2006 all trans fats in food products will have to be labelled on the nutritional panel.
Europe has yet to introduce a similar rule, but consumer organisations are pressing for such transparency and food makers are feeling market pressure to slice TFAs from their products.
In 2003 Denmark became the first country in the world to introduce restrictions on the use of industrially produced trans fatty acids. Oils and fats are now forbidden on the Danish market if they contain trans fatty acids exceeding 2 per cent.
Proving to be a potent lobbyist, Stephen Joseph, the lawyer who founded BanTransFats.com, first gained publicity for his cause by suing Kraft Foods two years ago to highlight the trans fat content of its icon food product, Oreo cookies. The company has since moved to remove trans fats from its snack foods.