NEW YORK – Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) may be next on the target list of a consumer-health group that this week sued the operator of the KFC fried chicken restaurant chain for frying foods in oils high in harmful trans fat.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest said it is planning to campaign against the global cafe chain because of the increased risk of obesity, heart disease and cancer associated with high-calorie, high-fat products it sells.
And the possibility of legal action against Starbucks, similar to the case it is taking against KFC owner Yum Brands Inc. (YUM), has not been ruled out, said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
"Regular consumers of Starbucks products could face Venti-sized health problems," Jacobson said, referring to Starbucks' use of the 'Venti' designation for 'large.'
The group is primarily funded by newsletter subscribers and individual donors. It has support in the campaign from the small IWW Starbucks Workers Union, which has members in three stores, all in New York.
They would like Starbucks to list nutrition information — which is currently available online and in store brochures — on its menu boards.
"Customers can ask for nutrition information, but when you're talking about a transparent business in a busy world, that's not enough," union organizer and Starbucks "barista" staff member Daniel Gross said in an interview.
He said the company should use healthier shortenings without trans fat, and publicize its smallest size, "short," which is available but does not appear on the menu.
The union contends that Starbucks staff gain weight when they work at the chain. They are offered unlimited beverages and leftover pastries for free during their shifts.
A 20-ounce Venti banana mocha Frappuccino with whipped cream contains 720 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat, and a banana cream crunch bar weighs in at 630 calories and 25 grams of saturated fat. By comparison, a McDonald's Corp. (MCD) Big Mac has 560 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat.
A Starbucks spokesman said in a statement it is "actively researching" alternatives to high-fat products. The company said it plans to eliminate trans fat from seasonal baked goods — but not necessarily other products — by this fall.
"In our beverage ingredients, we have reformulated any component that contained significant artificial trans fat content," the spokesman said.
Wendy's International Inc. and Panera Bread Co. have recently announced efforts to reduce or eliminate trans fats from their menus. Trans fat is an artery-clogging solid fat found in partially hydrogenated oils.
"Most people are taking the trans fat out of their foods because they raise the risk of heart disease and obesity," said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at NYU. "There's a lot of pressure to do so, especially since the (KFC) lawsuit."
Jacobson said Starbucks may have been spared the scrutiny fast-food chains received recently because of its health-conscious image.
"People expect foods from Dunkin' Donuts to be unhealthy, but Starbucks has more of an upper middle class, healthy, hip, politically correct facade," Jacobson said. "But the food is just as harmful to your arteries."