updated 6/3/2004 4:59:29 PM ET 2004-06-03T20:59:29

KFC can no longer make unsubstantiated health claims about its fried chicken or tout it as compatible with “low carbohydrate” weight-loss diets, federal regulators said Thursday in settling complaints about the chain’s ads.

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Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris said the settlement should be a signal that the commission will not tolerate “misleading advertisements” to weight-conscious consumers.

“For consumers to obtain healthier choices, we must make sure that companies promote their products honestly,” Muris said.

The settlement stems from a pair of ads KFC pulled off the air in November, including one where a couple trying to begin “eating better” sits down with a bucket of fried chicken. Another ad implies that fried chicken can be part of the diet for those watching their intake of carbohydrates. And in a jab at rival Burger King, KFC claimed two of its original-recipe chicken breasts have less fat than a Whopper. Both ads briefly flash disclaimers saying fried chicken is not low in fat, cholesterol or sodium.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a letter with the FTC calling the ads deceptive and asking for “prompt enforcement action.”

KFC spokeswoman Bonnie Warschauer said the company believes its ads to be “truthful and factually accurate,” but settled the case without admitting any wrongdoing. Warschauer said the ads will not be shown again.

“We’re sorry if anyone may have misinterpreted these two ads which ran last November — that was never our intent,” Warschauer said in a written statement.

Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, applauded the FTC action, but said it came too late given that the ads haven’t aired in eight months. Jacobson also criticized the FTC for failing to fine KFC for “egregiously misleading ads.”

“It stops the company from running ads it already stopped. That’s not much of a deterrent,” Jacobson said. “There’s no real cost other than the lawyers’ fees involved.”

FTC Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour said in a separate statement that the regulatory agency should have sought monetary damages against KFC.

“Companies should not be allowed to benefit monetarily from this kind of deception, especially where the health and safety of consumers are compromised,” she said. KFC “is fully aware of our nation’s struggle with obesity, yet has cynically attempted to exploit a massive health problem through deceptive advertising.”

The settlement, which is in effect for 20 years, prohibits KFC — a unit of Louisville-based Yum! Brands Inc. — from claiming that eating its fried chicken is better for a consumer’s health than eating a Burger King Whopper. It also can’t say its fried chicken is compatible with “low-carbohydrate” weight-loss programs, unless it substantiates the claim with competent and reliable evidence, including scientific evidence when appropriate.

The settlement also prohibits KFC from making any other claim about the amount of fat or other nutrients in its chicken products; the compatibility of its chicken products with any weight-loss program; or any other health benefit, unless the company substantiates the claim with competent and reliable evidence, including scientific evidence when appropriate.

The settlement includes provisions allowing KFC to make claims that comply with specific Food and Drug Administration food-labeling regulations. KFC must make available to the FTC copies of ads, as well as any documentation supporting and contradicting the claims made in the promotion.

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