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2005-02-16

McDonald’s To Pay $8.5 Million For Misleading Public About Use of Trans Fat

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McDonalds has settled a lawsuit over its use of trans fats, a dangerously unhealthy oil. The hamburger chain must pay $8.5 million for advertising claims that it cut trans fat from its French fries. The company announced the switch to healthier oil in September 2002, but five months later said there was a delay. [includes rush transcript]

The suit was filed by the consumer advocacy group bantransfat.com. It accused McDonald’s of failing to inform customers that the heart-clogging oil was still being used. Of the 8.5-million dollar payment, $7 million goes to the American Heart Association to educate the public about trans fat in foods. As part of the settlement, McDonald’s is also required to spend $1.5-million publicizing that it didn’t follow through on its 2002 pledge.

We are joined on the line by Kathy Fettke, the Plaintiff in $8 million settlement with Mcdonalds as well as Stephen Joseph. He is the founder and President of BanTransFats.com and the attorney for Plaintiff BanTransFats.com in its representative action against McDonald’s for injunctive relief. He is also the attorney for Plaintiff Katherine Fettke in the separate class action against McDonald’s for damages.

  • Stephen Joseph, founder and President of BanTransFats.com and the attorney for Plaintiff BanTransFats.com in its representative action against McDonald’s for injunctive relief. He is also the attorney for plaintiff Katherine Fettke in the separate class action against McDonald’s for damages.
  • Kathy Fettke, plaintiff in $8 million settlement with Mcdonalds

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we move to this country, McDonald’s has settled a lawsuit over its use of trans fats, a dangerously unhealthy oil. The hamburger chain has to pay $8.5 million for advertising claims that it cut trans fat from its french fries. The company announced the switch to healthier oil in September of 2002, but five months later, they said there was a delay. The suit was filed by the consumer advocacy group, bantransfats.com. It accused McDonald’s of failing to inform customers that the heart-clogging oil was still being used. Of the $8.5 million payment, $7 million goes to the American Heart Association to educate the public about trans fat in foods. As part of the settlement, McDonald’s is required to spend $1.5 million publicizing that it didn’t follow through on its 2002 pledge. We’re joined now by Kathy Fettke, plaintiff in the $8 million lawsuit with McDonald’s as well as Stephen Joseph, he’s the founder and president of bantransfats.com and the attorney for the plaintiff in its representative action against McDonald’s for injunctive relief. He’s also the attorney in another case. We welcome you both to the show. Thank you very much for joining us. Katherine Fettke, why did you bring this lawsuit?

KATHERINE FETTKE: Well, in 2002 I was very thrilled to hear the news that McDonalds was reducing the amount of trans fats in their oil. I saw that news story everywhere. I work in the news, so not only did I hear it in the news room, but I heard it — you know, it was in every newspaper and television program. So I was very happy. I’m somebody who cares a lot about my health, and I have heart disease and breast cancer in my family, so I been told to avoid trans fats, as should most people. So, I was very, very surprised to find out that they had never changed the oil. That’s why we did the lawsuit. Because it was misrepresentation.

AMY GOODMAN: How did McDonald’s originally respond?

STEPHEN JOSEPH: I guess, Amy, you would want to ask me about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

STEPHEN JOSEPH: Because the response was to me. Amy, I cannot get too much into the facts and details of the lawsuit. Essentially, the problem was that McDonald’s achieved huge national and international publicity with its September, 2002, announcement, and I mean huge, record-breaking publicity. Telling the world that the trans fat levels in its products, including especially french fries were being reduced — in the case of french fries, being reduced by 48%. That’s a heck of a reduction for what is a product with a very high trans fat content. And everybody — not everybody, but I would think that very vast majority of people thought that they had followed through and had changed the oil. But in fact they never did. McDonald’s issued a press release in February of 2003 saying that there was a delay. The press release was issued on a Friday night. It was — it received very minimal publicity. So people were continuing to rely on the earlier press release and all of the publicity, thinking that the oil had been changed, but it hadn’t. So that was the reason for suing McDonald’s.

KATHERINE FETTKE: I want to add that I did some research. I wanted to find out what was in McDonald’s foods. It was hard to find the nutritional content.

STEPHEN JOSEPH: At that time there was no information on the website regarding trans fats.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what trans fats are?

STEPHEN JOSEPH: They’re are four kinds of fat, saturated fat, trans fat polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat. Trans fat comes from two sources. It comes from natural sources. It’s found in beef and dairy products and some other natural sources, but mostly, we get trans fat from the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil. That kind of trans fat is dangerous to our health. That artificial trans fat not only increases LDL Cholesterol, which is the bad type of cholesterol, but it also reduces HDL Cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol, that we must have. That is the kind of cholesterol that helps to keep our arteries clear. So, that’s why it’s been found to have an extremely negative effect on our health. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the presence of trans fat in our food supply is causing between 30,000 and 100,000 premature heart attacks — heart attack deaths per year, in this country alone. That’s up to 274 deaths per day. Now, that is just the deaths. That’s not counting the heart attacks from which people don’t die. That is a terrible thing, and that’s something that should be removed from our food supply and in fact the Bush administration last month, in announcing the dietary guidelines included a statement in there that the food industry has an important role in removing this substance from our food.

AMY GOODMAN: Looking at a New York Times piece that says, "According to one survey on trans fat issued by the FDA in 1999, partially hydrogenated oil was in 95% of cookies, 100% of crackers and 80% of frozen breakfast foods on supermarket shelves. Margarine, very high in trans fat, was one of the first foods to change." So, if you go into McDonald’s, how do you know what’s being used, and was trans fat used to replace beef tallow because of the protests by vegetarians and Hindus who didn’t realize that beef tallow was used in the oil cooking of the french fries?

STEPHEN JOSEPH: You are confusing the issues there. Up until about 15 years ago, McDonald’s used animal vegetable fat for its frying. Then there were objections to that, and not only from vegetarians, and Jewish people, but generally, you know, there was a feeling that animal vegetable oils were too high in saturated fats. So McDonald’s switched to partially hydrogenated oil. At that time it was not as well known as it is now, that trans fats were problematic for health. It was only as time went on that this really came to light. So, McDonald’s wasn’t — you know, was acting properly and was acting really in what it thought was, you know, the public interests, when it switched to the — to partially hydrogenated oil in the early 1990’s. It turned out that that oil was worse than what it was replacing. Then they were faced with the problem of having to replace it again. McDonald’s did try hard to change the oil. We’re not critical of them at all in that regard. In fact, we’re highly compliment because they did attempt to make the change. They ran into difficulties, and things just didn’t work out. You know, sometimes with the best of intentions, things don’t necessarily work out. They did have the best of intentions. The problem was from our point of view, that they didn’t tell the world that the plan hasn’t worked out.

AMY GOODMAN: And got a lot of attention when they announced they weren’t going to use it. We asked McDonald’s to join us, they didn’t, but sent us their statement. It talks about the settlement about giving $7 million to the American Heart Association and then says, "McDonald’s has been successful in reducing TFA levels, trans fat, in our Chicken McNuggets, Crispy Chicken Sandwich and McChicken Sandwich. Meanwhile, TFA information is available to McDonald’s customers in our restaurants and on our McDonald’s websites. It is important to note that McDonald’s continues to work hard on our initiative to reduce TFAs in our cooking oil. Why is it so hard to change?

STEPHEN JOSEPH: Well, actually unfortunately, Amy, I cannot talk about that, because I’m under a protective order, so you know, I’m restricted in what I can say. I learned, you know, the relevant facts through discovery in the court case, and it’s considered to be proprietary business information, so I’m really restricted in what I can say about that. So unfortunately, you have to ask me another question.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning, bantransfats.com, to sue other companies that use these partially hydrogenated oils, since they’re used in 100% of cookies and other things?

STEPHEN JOSEPH: I’m not sure what we’re going to do in the future. We’re dealing with the McDonald’s case. There’s a final hearing in August to resolve some of the loose ends, but the court did preliminarily approve these settlements last week. So things are moving to a conclusion. We’ll think about what we’re going to do in the future, you know, in the coming months.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stephen Joseph, and Kathy Fettke, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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