A national health advocacy group filed a lawsuit against fast-food chain KFC in San Francisco Superior Court this morning, saying the company must post warning signs because its new grilled chicken sandwiches contain carcinogens.

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes veganism, KFC’s new line of grilled chicken contains a cancer-causing chemical known as PhIP, part of a chemical grouping that has been linked to several types of cancer.

“By far the most abundant contributor to the American diet is cooked chicken product,” Joe Keon, a nutritionist with PCRM, said of the chemicals.

In a statement, a KFC spokesman dismissed the suit as part of PCRM’s “vegetarian agenda.”

The advocacy group commissioned independent lab studies of grilled breasts, wings, drumsticks and thighs from 12 Bay Area KFC restaurants and reports that every single sample contained PhIP. They did not test any fried chicken.

The organization is not objecting to the sale of the sandwich, Keon said, but takes issue with KFC “saying this is a healthier choice for a health-conscious consumer.”

The complaint filed this morning alleges that KFC is violating the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. Commonly known as Proposition 65, the law requires businesses to notify patrons if significant amounts of cancer-causing chemicals may be present at the business or in its products. PhIP is included in state and federal listings of known carcinogens.

PCRM spokesman Patrick Sullivan said the lawsuit asks the chicken chain to comply with existing state law and post Proposition 65 notices in its restaurants.

“People deserve to know this cancer-causing chemical is in KFC’s grilled chicken,” he said.
KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said in a statement that the company’s grilled chicken “meets or exceeds all federal and state regulations for food safety, including Proposition 65.”

Maynard noted that PhIP is “a natural byproduct of grilling chicken,” whether at home or in a restaurant.

KFC also cited a 2006 letter from then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer saying cooked chicken was analyzed and determined exempt from Proposition 65 because the cooking process kills infection-causing bacteria. The letter states that “the reduction in hazard from microbiological contamination due to cooking is greater than the risk posed by the presence of PhIP.”

PCRM nutritionist Keon said PhIP is present in muscle whenever chicken is heated at a high temperature. He reiterated that the lawsuit focuses on the need for warning signage in restaurants, rather than the presence of the chemical.

PCRM has filed a similar suit last year in Los Angeles County Superior Court against McDonald’s, Burger King, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s Bar and Grill, T.G.I. Friday’s and Chick-Fil-A. The case is currently on appeal, according to PCRM attorney David Alderson.

Of all the restaurants listed, Burger King chose to settle and post Proposition 65 notices in its California establishments, according to Sullivan.

KFC released its Kentucky Grilled Chicken line in April 2009. PCRM tested the new products as quickly as possible, Sullivan said.

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