KFC Misled Consumers on Health Benefits, FTC Says
By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page E01
KFC Corp. was telling a whopper when it said two of its fried chicken breasts were more healthful to eat than one of the popular sandwiches sold by Burger King, the Federal Trade Commission said yesterday.
The agency, which polices deceptive advertising, said KFC misled consumers in the fall when it ran two television ads touting the relative health benefits of its fried chicken. In a settlement, the company agreed to stop making claims about the health value or weight-loss benefits of any of its food unless they can be substantiated with reliable evidence.
"Today's action signals food advertisers that the FTC will not tolerate misleading advertisements to consumers who are trying to eat healthier and watch their weight," said Chairman Timothy J. Muris. "For consumers to obtain healthier choices, we must make sure that the companies promote their products honestly."
In a statement by Scott Bergren, chief marketing and food innovation officer, KFC said it agreed to the settlement "to put the issue behind us." It added, "We have always believed our ads to be truthful and factually accurate."
At issue were two ads that the chain, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., ran in November. One said two KFC fried chicken breasts had less fat than a Burger King Whopper; the other said KFC fried chicken fit into a low-carbohydrate diet.
The commission said that while two KFC fried white chicken breasts have slightly less total fat and saturated fat than a Whopper -- as the ad said -- they also have more than three times the trans fat and cholesterol and more than twice the sodium of a Whopper. And two breasts have 760 calories, 50 more than a Whopper, according to the FTC. The agency also said low-carbohydrate weight-loss programs such as the Atkins and South Beach diets specifically advise against eating breaded fried foods.
Two of the five commissioners who approved the agreement, independent Pamela Jones Harbour and Democrat Mozelle W. Thompson, said they would have preferred tougher action, including a financial penalty. "Companies should not be allowed to benefit monetarily from this kind of deception, especially where the health and safety of consumers are compromised," Harbour wrote in a statement.
Mary Engle, associate director of the FTC's advertising practices division, said the agency doesn't have the power to impose monetary penalties on a first violation unless it can show extreme fraudulent behavior. She said the commission sometimes gets monetary penalties in settlements.
KFC's ads engendered sharp criticism immediately after they were launched. Advertising Age magazine took a highly unusual step of writing an editorial calling them "laughable and damaging" and urged that they be stopped immediately. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutritional advocacy group, filed a complaint with the FTC.
A short time later, KFC called a halt to the ads. The company said it was not in response to the criticism, but part of the "normal course of business," in which ads run for only a few weeks at a time.
Yesterday, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the FTC action, but said the agency should have acted more quickly and imposed a stiff financial penalty. "This kind of consent agreement is really a little slap on the wrist; KFC is getting better treatment than any common burglar."
Engle said the FTC acted quickly. In advertising cases, she said, "anything done under a year is very unusual."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company