Lawyer Who Took On Oreos and McDonald's Fights On in Food War

Times Staff Writer

Some see Stephen Joseph -- the man behind much-ridiculed lawsuits against McDonald's and Oreo cookies -- as just another lawyer hustling for a buck.

To many consumer advocates, however, he is a crusader who has done as much to publicize the health dangers in some popular foods as the federal government.

In any case, no one can deny that Joseph has achieved results.

Two years ago, the Tiburon, Calif., attorney sued Kraft Foods Inc. over the shortening it used in Oreos. Within days, Kraft agreed to reformulate the cookies, eliminating the oil that contained trans fat, which can raise harmful cholesterol levels.

And last month, a Marin County Superior Court judge finalized an $8.5-million settlement of a suit he filed against McDonald's Corp. for reneging on a much-ballyhooed promise in 2002 to reduce the amount of trans fat in the oil used to cook its French fries, Chicken McNuggets and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

The Oreos lawsuit inspired a top-10 list from David Letterman, a rant by Rush Limbaugh and a flood of nasty e-mails. The lawsuit also made his two children "distraught," Joseph said, for fear their schoolmates would discover their dad was gunning for a food icon.

But in the wake of the McDonald's settlement, the jokes and the vitriol are dying down. The money will fund a multimillion-dollar initiative by the American Heart Assn. to draw attention to the dangers of trans fat. As part of the deal, McDonald's also has spent $1.5 million posting signs in its 13,000 U.S. restaurants telling customers that their frying oil still contains trans fat. On top of that, Joseph stands to receive $2 million in legal fees from the lawsuit.

To some tort-reform advocates, Joseph's run against Kraft and McDonald's is a classic example of litigation gone wild.

The suits demonstrated "how the civil justice system can be misused," said John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Assn. of California.

But Joseph, who insists "business controls Capitol Hill," sees the courts as offering the only "level landscape for ordinary people to get justice."

A growing number of nutritionists are cheering him on. "Good for him," said Charlotte Neumann, a UCLA public-health professor. Trans fats are "very bad," she said. They're "wrecking arteries and contributing to heart disease."

His all-consuming focus on the danger of trans fat notwithstanding, the British-born 51-year-old is no kook in Birkenstocks. He easily could be mistaken for a Century City attorney in a sport coat, dress slacks and open-collared shirt.

And he's no vegan either. "I'm not part of the nuts-and-seeds crowd at all," he laughed. "That stuff tastes like hell. I want a good-tasting meal that I look forward to, not dread."

He moved his family to the Bay Area in 1997, opening a small commercial law practice that he still maintains, working out of his house. Joseph is reticent about his private life, declining to meet a reporter at his home and uncomfortable discussing his family or his legal work outside of trans-fat cases.

Many people know him more by reputation than personally. An exception is Ellen Davenport, co-owner of the California Rice Oil Co., a business based in nearby Novato that makes a trans-fat-free alternative.

"I like him," Davenport said. "He's a quirky guy, but we get along and we believe in the same thing. Somebody's got to get the word out."

Joseph says his worries about Oreos and French fries are based on solid science. Indeed, most nutrition experts agree that trans fat, still ubiquitous in commercial baked goods, crackers and fried foods, raises the risk of heart attacks by clogging arteries and lowering the incidence of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol.

The Food and Drug Administration has advised consumers since 2002 to keep their consumption of trans fat as low as possible. Beginning in January, the agency will require food labels to list the amount of trans fat in a serving.

Some food manufacturers already post this information on their product labels and in recent years several companies, including PepsiCo Inc.'s Frito-Lay and Campbell Soup Co.'s Pepperidge Farm, voluntarily reduced or eliminated the trans fat in their products.

Joseph says that his goal is to provide consumers with the facts so they can make healthy decisions when they shop or eat out. "There's no freedom of choice if you have no information," he said.

But his lawsuits and his website -- www.bantransfat.com -- seem aimed at banishing the substance he bluntly calls "lethal" from grocery shelves.

Trans fat is formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oil, turning it into a solid such as shortening and hard margarine (generally the kind that usually comes in sticks, not tubs). Hydrogenated oil extends the shelf life of foods that contain it. Most often produced through commercial hydrogenation, trans fat also occurs naturally in small amounts in some foods derived from animals. Trans fat and saturated fat, including animal fat and some vegetable oil such as palm and coconut oil, raise blood levels of LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart attack.

Joseph said his obsession with trans fat stemmed from the death of his stepfather in Cheshire, England, after a heart attack.

"He was a very healthy eater," a slender, fit man with a weakness for bread slathered with margarine, Joseph recalled. "He thought it was better than butter. Nobody in Britain, myself included, thought there was any problem with margarine."

After his stepfather died in 2001, Joseph happened to read an article on the dangers of trans fat. "I got pretty upset about it," he said.

"I always read food labels looking out for saturated fat," he remembered, only to become alarmed when he discovered that many times he had been "eating the wrong stuff."

After moving to the United States in 1978, Joseph worked as a lobbyist representing corporate clients and law firms in Washington, an experience that left him cynical about the prospects that the FDA would move quickly to address the danger.

"I have a very low opinion of government," he said. "As long as business is strangling the democratic process, it's hopeless."

So he turned to the courts, targeting Oreos.

Joseph recalls bringing home a package of Newman-O's, cream-filled -- and trans-fat-free -- sandwich cookies made by Newman's Own Organics, a spinoff of actor Paul Newman's food company. "I told my wife that I won't sue Kraft if these cookies taste lousy," he said. "But they were great, and I knew that Kraft could do the same thing with Oreos."

He sued on behalf of children, claiming the trans-fat-laden shortening that Kraft used constituted a hidden health hazard.

Joseph dropped the lawsuit shortly after filing it when Kraft announced it would reformulate the cookie.

He is simultaneously defensive and unabashedly proud about that victory.

"The suit was massively misunderstood," in part because he filed it not long after a New York man sued McDonald's for allegedly making him obese, Joseph said.

"Saturated fat and trans fat will give you a heart attack," he said, "but they don't make you fat."

Still, he was delighted that "the food industry got the message in a very big way. Kraft was iconic," he said, "and if you could get the trans fat out of Oreos, everyone else would follow."

What Joseph calls his "domino theory" is what Sullivan of the Civil Justice Assn. of California calls a corporate shakedown.

"An individual can use a lawsuit to cause a ... company a great deal of adverse publicity," Sullivan said. "Even if the company believes it's doing the right thing, it may settle or change their practices to make the lawsuit go away."

Another proponent of tort reform was less critical.

Philip Howard, a New York lawyer and author of two books criticizing America's rush to the courthouse, said Joseph's trans-fat suits weren't frivolous because legislative and bureaucratic remedies are all but unavailable. "His lawsuit becomes then a symbolic act, like marching on the capital, to bring the issue to the public's attention," Howard said. "If he can make a plausible claim, he's accomplishing a political goal."

Joseph estimates he spends at least half his time lecturing and responding to food company executives seeking advice as to how they can remove trans fat from their products.

Until now, he claimed, he has paid for this private war against trans fat largely out of his own pocket. The $2 million in legal fees he won from McDonald's will help continue the fight, he said.

And those efforts appear to be gathering some momentum.

As a result of his collaboration with Ellen Davenport, nearly all of Tiburon's restaurants switched to rice oil and other substitutes, making the community America's first "trans-fat-free city."

In August, New York City health officials asked city restaurateurs and food suppliers to voluntarily eliminate partially hydrogenated vegetable oils from their kitchens.

Joseph wouldn't comment on his involvement in that campaign but said he was "over the moon about it" and hoped other cities, including Los Angeles, would follow suit.

"I'd like to create Tiburons all over the L.A. area," he said.

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