On Wednesday the Center for the Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) received yet another legal smackdown from the judicial establishment, as Federal Judge James Robertson dismissed a CSPI-inspired lawsuit against KFC. Last year, CSPI’s Dr. Arthur Hoyte sued the popular chicken chain for failing "to disclose the presence of trans fat in its food."
Hoyte has feigned shock all along that KFC’s deep-fried offerings are prepared in a popular frying oil. Ultimately, though, that stunning lack of common sense didn’t figure in Judge Robertson’s decision. As the judge sarcatically wrote:
[I]t might be appropriate for this court to find, as a matter of law, that the consumption of fat — including trans fat — is indeed within the reasonable expectations of the consumers of fried chicken and french fries prepared in fast food kitchens …
Robertson ruled against Hoyte because he failed to show he actually suffered any injuries as a result of KFC’s "deception":
Dr. Hoyte does not "allege that the food he ordered was in any way unpalatable or that he suffered any immediate ill effects after he ate his order." He claims no emotional harm, pain or suffering. He does mention economic "injuries," but he does not specify what "economic injury" he has suffered, and none is evident from the facts presented, even under the most charitable reading of the complaint.
Hoyte’s courtroom defeat hasn’t been met with the same media frenzy that followed his lawsuit’s filing. That’s unfortunate, since CSPI’s PR strategy — unleashing frivolous lawsuits against food companies in order to stigmatize their products — only works when the public doesn’t hold the group accountable. Given the recent chain of events, it’s no wonder that some companies have begun to compromise. As CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson told The New York Times in January 2006:
We used to file all sorts of complaints with the government. Sometimes we’d get a response, but usually nothing happened. Now, when we have told companies that we’re going to sue them, they show up in our office the next week.
On a related note: KFC recently completed its phase-out of trans fat in all 5,500 of its domestic restaurants. CSPI will, of course, claim credit for this move. But KFC’s spokespeople have noted that it was in the works for years — well before CSPI started beating the anti-trans fat drum. Far more often than not, changes like these are motivated by consumer — not activist — demand.