Study tracks Oreos trans-fat talk on web

NEW YORK: A research firm that monitors online conversations is releasing a report today on its analysis of the May 2003 incident in which a consumer-advocacy group sued Kraft for its use of partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, in Oreo cookies.

NEW YORK: A research firm that monitors online conversations is releasing a report today on its analysis of the May 2003 incident in which a consumer-advocacy group sued Kraft for its use of partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, in Oreo cookies.

The report said that before the lawsuit, consumers did not link Oreos to trans fat but to topics like recipes, purchasing, product feedback, and dieting. After the suit, 90% of messages mentioning Oreos referred to trans fat or the lawsuit.

Before the suit, 82% of conversations about trans fat happened in specialized forums, such as those covering nutrition, fitness, and health. Mentions in mainstream forums grew from 11% before the suit to more than 30% after it.

The suit, which was brought against Kraft in California by BanTransFat.com, increased the volume of online discussions on trans fat by eight times.

BuzzMetrics, which combs web content created by individuals rather than commercial or media entities - message boards, blogs, e-mail listservs, product-review sites, personal home pages - said it analyzed more than 2.6 million comments from more than 120,000 consumers.

The report was not done for Kraft but as a case study, the first of its kind that BuzzMetrics has released publicly.

Jonathan Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics, said one use of the data would be "preparedness." Many of the consumer sites that did mention trans fat predicted anti-trans fat initiatives targeted at food makers.

"For large food companies, trans fat was on their radar a long time, but they weren't able to gauge when it would hit and how large it would hit," Carson said. "In the months leading up, there were all these tremors showing that something big was on the way."

The results also show that a crisis for one company can spill over into others in its category. In a random sample of 3,345 online messages between January and November 2003, other companies, food brands, and categories were also cited. For example, McDonald's was mentioned in 8% of trans fat discussions, Crisco in 16%, and baked goods and cookies in 32%.

Elisabeth Wenner, senior manager of communications at Kraft Foods, said she could not comment on the specifics of the company's research methods, other than to say that it does monitor consumer audiences.

As for the BuzzMetrics study, Wenner said Kraft finds "all information is helpful if it provides a better understanding to the question at hand."

According to its website, BanTransFat.com quickly dropped its suit because Kraft said "it would reduce or eliminate the trans fat in the Oreo."

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