In 2003, San Francisco public interest lawyer Stephen Joseph read up on the dangers of trans fat, then a little-known term.  He came to believe that his father had died in part because of a steady diet of margarine and other trans fat foods.  These foods were believed at the time to be healthy, because they were “low in fat.”

Joseph promptly sued Nabisco.  He requested an injunction (a court order for a party to stop doing something), prohibiting the company from using trans fat in Oreo Cookies.  California allows lawsuits against a manufacturer when a product has a hidden danger, not commonly known by most people in the community.  In addition, Oreos are marketed to children, who would never be expected to know about trans fat.

Shortly after Nabisco was served with a complaint, the media coverage of the law suit forced Nabisco to agree to the injunction.  Joseph quickly dismissed the suit.  Since then, worldwide public awareness of trans fat has exploded, and other manufacturers of processed foods have voluntarily reduced the use of trans fat in their products.  The legal lesson is that a public interest lawsuit that generates publicity can have a far-reaching “domino effect.”

Also in 2003, Joseph sued McDonald’s, which announced in 2002 that it would reduce the trans fat in its oil.  However, it never did so, and allegedly did not inform the public adequately of its decision not to follow through with its announcement.  In the end, McDonald’s agreed to reduce its trans fat.

This lawyer subsequently brought lawsuits against other fast food chains across the country, such as KFC and Burger King.  As a result, most fast food chains, such as Wendy’s, Starbucks, and Taco Bell, are actively developing and using new oils low in trans fat.  Besides California, no other state regulates the amount of trans fat that restaurants can use.