FORT WORTH, Texas - Burger King on Friday joined a growing list of national fast-food chains to announce that it will begin frying food in healthier cooking oils - ones that don't contain artery-clogging trans fats.
But although it no longer will cook french fries in trans fat-heavy hydrogenated oil, the Miami-based corporation said the potatoes will continue to come partly fried - or "par-fried" - in such oil from its suppliers' factories. That isn't enough to satisfy the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which said Friday that it will continue pursuing its lawsuit against the chain over the use of trans fats.
"The total elimination of trans fat is not part of the rollout," said Keva Silversmith, a Burger King spokesman. "Right now, we're focusing on in-restaurant cooking oils."
The transition will be complete by the end of 2008 for the chain's 7,100 U.S. restaurants, sooner if supplies are ample, he said.
The Washington-based center alleges in the suit, filed earlier this year in the District of Columbia, that Burger King deceptively promotes its food as healthy.
"Good for them for getting rid of their trans-fat frying next year," said the group's attorney, Stephen Gardner of Dallas. "Bad for them for allowing trans fats to sneak back in the diet by not barring their suppliers from using trans fat, too."
The consumer-watchdog group was initially jubilant over Burger King's announcement, then took a second look.
"We were ready to dismiss the lawsuit when we first heard of it," Gardner said. "But we're going ahead. (In talks Friday), we didn't get any assurance they were going to get rid of trans fats in the par-fried products."
The group's lawyer said that discussions with Burger King's lawyers would resume Monday. The chain said it doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Silversmith noted that partly fried potatoes meet the criteria of New York City's July 1 ban on trans fats at city restaurants.
The prohibition covers cooking oil used for on-premises food preparation. New York was one of four markets where two oil blends were test-marketed, Silversmith said, declining to name the other test cities.
"We're doing what we can to make Burger King a healthier option," he said.
Aside from fries, Burger King will use trans fat-free oils for in-restaurant frying of chicken tenders, onion rings, cheesy tots and hash browns, he said. Its burgers are flame-grilled.
Silversmith declined to say what sort of vegetable oils are used in the two substitute blends to be distributed to its restaurants, or whether they have a cost and shelf life similar to the traditional hydrogenated soybean oil.
Customers accepted the new cooking oils, he said.
Gardner called Burger King the "laggard of the industry" for being slow to adopt healthier oils.
"Usually, we're able to resolve the issue without litigation," he said.
Wendy's, Chili's, Sonic, Bennigan's and Steak and Ale have been using non-trans fat oil since last year.
"We are trans fat-free for cooking oil, and working with suppliers to ensure they adhere to the same guidelines" for factory-prepared items, said Flynn Dekker, of Metromedia Restaurants, which owns the Bennigan's and Steak and Ale concepts.
McDonald's introduced a healthier oil earlier this year that is now being used in about a fourth of its U.S. restaurants, said Michael Jacobson, the center's executive director.
KFC and Taco Bell are trans fat-free for most products except chicken pot pie and a few other minor items, which are made with partly hydrogenated oil, Jacobson said.
In Texas, Dairy Queen began converting to non-trans fat oil this spring and about 60 percent of restaurants are now using the healthier oil, said Larry Newell of the Texas Dairy Queen Operator's Council. Since January, its suppliers have shipped fries that have been partly fried in trans fat-free oil, Newell said.