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One little quarter-page ad in the Indianapolis Star had the telephone ringing off the hook in Washington, as hundreds of Hoosiers reported stomach cramps and other symptoms after eating Frito-Lay's new Wow chips. The snack product is made with the controversial fat substitute olestra, sold under the name Olean by Procter & Gamble, its manufacturer.
At a press conference today in Indianapolis, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said it was inundated with reports of abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fecal incontinence, and other gastrointestinal symptoms. On the day the ad ran, CSPI's toll-free Olestra Hot Line, 1-888-OLESTRA, received almost 200 calls.
Cecilia Bowman, president of Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, based in Clayton, Indiana, said, "Shame on Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble for using Hoosiers as guinea pigs for their products. The FDA should yank olestra from the market. If Wow chips and other foods made with it were ever marketed nationally, millions of consumers could get sick. Frito-Lay's reputation might literally be going down the toilet in Indiana. I hope the company exercises some responsibility and voluntarily ends its test market before more people get sick."
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, said, "The flood of calls we have received represents the tip of the iceberg. In just the first two weeks on the market, Wow chips have probably sickened thousands of people. People have missed work or school, called their doctor, or didn't get to the bathroom in time.
"Every call to 1-888-OLESTRA," said Jacobson, "is another nail in the coffin for olestra."
Several victims of olestra poisoning spoke at the press conference, including:
In the past week, CSPI has received calls from more than 300 Indianans who were apparently affected by olestra. Jacobson said, "It's remarkable that we received so many reports, mostly from one newspaper ad. If we had the same resources and access to the media to publicize our toll-free number as Frito-Lay has to advertise Wow chips, I am sure we would receive many thousands of reports."
Jacobson said the number of complaints is sure to rise. He noted that yesterday Procter & Gamble apparently is beginning to market Pringles containing olestra throughout much of Indiana. "Procter & Gamble is adding insult to the injury that Frito-Lay already is causing," Jacobson said. "The more olestra there is in Indiana the more consumers here will risk unnecessary suffering."
CSPI expects to receive many more calls once local stations begin running its TV spot that alerts viewers to problems that Wow chips might cause. Viewers are urged to call CSPI's toll-free olestra hot line, 1-888-OLESTRA.
CSPI reported that it is asking the Indiana attorney general to require all ads for Wow chips or Olean to include the notice that the Food and Drug Administration requires on labels. That notice includes the statement, "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools."
CSPI has asked the FDA to revoke its approval of olestra or, at the least, to require a more prominent and strongly worded warning label. CSPI has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to require the FDA-required label notice in all ads for products that contain olestra.
"Procter & Gamble's public pronouncements pretend," added Jacobson, "that the small number of reports it has received represents the total number of people affected. However, the company has acknowledged to the FDA that 'not all occurrences of a particular adverse event may be reported.' The company also pretends that it takes large amounts of chips to cause symptoms. In fact, many people who ate just 10 or 15 chips reported sickness."
CSPI is a nonprofit health-advocacy organization that focuses on nutrition and food safety. It is based in Washington, D.C., and is supported largely by its 900,000 members. It does not accept industry or government funding. CSPI led efforts to win passage of the law requiring nutrition labels on food packages and has publicized the nutritional content of many popular restaurant foods.
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