LOS ANGELES: When Kentucky Fried Chicken announced last Monday it would discontinue the use of trans fatty acids in most of its menu items in favor of a low linolenic soybean oil, it marked a significant change for both the chain and the fast-food industry at large.The announcement coincided with the New York City Board of Health's public hearing regarding a proposed citywide ban on restaurant food prepared with trans fats. That, said Laurie Schalow, senior director of PR for Louisville, KY-based KFC, was a calculated effort by the crispy-chicken mongers to "strategically place our brand within the news."
In addition to lining up primary print and broadcast coverage in advance, KFC - with assistance from Ogilvy PR's Washington office - scheduled its news conference in New York City immediately prior to the city's hearings, Schalow said. The company also provided shuttle service from its conference to the hearings, to "be sensitive to the media's tight timeframe and short staff." These efforts, Schalow said, helped KFC's announcement-coverage flourish, rather than be overshadowed by the hearing.
As late as June, KFC had defended its trans fat-fried secret recipe, most notably in response to a class-action lawsuit filed then by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Washington law firm Heideman Nudelman & Kalik. That suit, demanding that KFC discontinue the use of partially hydrogenated oil in its cooking, was withdrawn following the restaurant's announcement.
Now, trans fat-banning advocates including the American Heart Association and former US Surgeon General Dr. Richard H. Carmona have said KFC's switch would compel other major fast-food chains to make similar changes. But according to Schalow, the move is not an easy one: KFC had been quietly testing alternative oils for two years, she said, attempting to determine which would be "readily available" from suppliers and "trying to get the taste right."
As for KFC's next steps, Schalow said, all of the Colonel's 5,500 North American units are expected to have made the switch by April 2007. Ongoing outreach plans are still being evaluated, she said, but are expected to include point-of-purchase displays, updated on-site and online nutritional information, and print and television advertising.
Other chains are also struggling with issues of taste. Burger King, for example, has been experimenting with non-hydrogenated oils, but has not found an appropriate alternative. And as long ago as 2002, McDonald's announced it would discontinue the use of trans-fatty oils in some of its menu items, but it has yet to follow through. Wendy's, however, has made the change. In August, the chain introduced a blend of trans-fat free, non-hydrogenated corn and soy oil in which it now cooks its breaded-chicken items and fries.
KFC's parent corporation, Yum Brands - which also owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, A&W, and Long John Silver's chains - said it is looking into scaling back the use of trans fats at the rest of its restaurants.