The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken the first step in a legal battle against Frito-Lay, accusing the company of deceptively marketing its "light" potato chips. The consumer advocacy group says the chips are made with Olestra, a controversial fat substitute that causes diarrhea, stomach cramps and other unappetizing symptoms.
Since 1998, when Frito-Lay first introduced Olestra to its chip lines (which were first labeled WOW!, then renamed to light in 2004), CSPI has been loudly warning consumers about the potential side effects of Olestra. Initially, the Food and Drug Administration required food makers to post warning labels on food that contained Olestra, but in 2003, the agency dropped that requirement.
CSPI says Frito-Lay deliberately changed the WOW! name to light to deceive people into thinking the product was new, Olestra-free and of course, low-calorie. "Changing the name represented an attempt to revive a dying product, regardless of consumers' well-being," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. Frito-Lay makes Olestra chips under the Lay's, Ruffles and Doritos labels.
CSPI said it forwarded 396 new consumer health complaints about Olestra products to the FDA last week, making a total of 3,753 complaints that the group has sent the FDA since 1996. CSPI asked the agency to reinstate the warning label. Meanwhile, it is readying a class-action lawsuit against Frito-Lay in Massachusetts, which has some of the friendliest pro-consumer protection laws in the country. Before the suit can be filed, however, the plaintiffs have to give the defendant 30 days notice. That's what CSPI did today.
Frito-Lay spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez said Olestra is safe and has been approved for use since 1996. "It is one of the most widely researched food ingredients, so the issue of safety doen't apply." She added that the company has always been forthright about Olestra, following the FDA requirements about labeling. The light chips still bear an Olean decal on the front of the packages and Olestra is listed as an ingredient on the back, Gonzalez said. "We feel we're being very forthcoming," Gonzalez said.
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