Adverse Reactions to Olestra Have Nutrition Group Threatening to Sue Frito-Lay over Lack of Warnings

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington based nutrition group, is threatening litigation in Massachusetts against Frito-Lay for not warning consumers about potential adverse reactions posed by the use of olestra in its “reduced fat” products like Ruffles, Lay’s potato chips, Doritos, and Tostitos.

CSPI has been frustrated by Frito-Lay’s and PepsiCo’s (its parent corporation) refusal to voluntarily provide information on packages warning consumers of the numerous unpleasant digestive problems associated with olestra, including loose stools, abdominal cramping, and frequent bowel movements.

Frito-Lay, however, maintains that the company is complying with all federal laws and regulations and therefore does not need to alter the labeling on its products as demanded by CSPI.

In 1996, when olestra was first approved, the FDA required a health warning be printed on product labels. But In 2003, the agency dropped the requirement, saying ”real-life consumption studies" revealed that olestra caused only ”a minor increase in bowel movement frequency compared to those people who consumed only full-fat chips."

In a letter to Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, CSPI said that Frito-Lay is attempting to mislead consumers about the dangers of olestra, first by removing the warning label, then by renaming the products that contained the additive.
Formerly using the word “WOW” on packages to denote its reduced fat products, Frito-Lay now calls them “Light.” The change was made last June.
The director of litigation for CSPI, Stephen Gardner, said Frito-Lay changed the name intentionally in order ”to deceive people," but the company maintains the change came about because the “WOW!” designation didn’t give consumers any information about the products, while “Light” sends a more definite message.

According to Frito-Lay, Light products list olestra among their ingredients and also have an Olean logo (the trade name for olestra) on the front of the packaging.

The company, which has received reports of adverse reactions to these products all around the United States, believes CSPI is pursing litigation in Massachusetts because of the extensive protections afforded consumers under the that State’s consumer protection act.

That very law may undercut the threatened lawsuit, however, since one of its provisions says it would not apply to ”transactions or actions otherwise permitted under laws as administered by any regulatory board or officer acting under statutory authority of the commonwealth or of the United States."

Here, the FDA’s 2003 decision to do away with the olestra health warning may be enough to require a dismissal of any lawsuit contemplated by CSPI.

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