A national health advocacy group filed suit against KFC last month in San Francisco, alleging the fast food chain’s new grilled chicken contains carcinogens and should be required to come with a warning.

“This is an issue of alerting the public to the danger,” said Dan Kinburn, general counsel for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “We’re not suing for damages. We’re suing for warning labels. We want people to know about this risk.”

An advertisement for KFC's grilled chicken inside the Mission restaurant.

An advertisement for KFC's grilled chicken inside the Mission restaurant.

The group collected 12 samples of chicken from six KFC locations in the Bay Area. Analysis from an independent testing lab found all the samples contained PhIP, a chemical classified as a carcinogen by the federal government and the state of California.

KFC advertises its grilled chicken as a “better-for-you option for health-conscious customers,” according to its web site.

Unaware of the lawsuit, customers streamed into KFC/Taco Bell last week at the corner of Duboce Avenue and Guerrero Street in the Mission District. Behind the counter, employees grilled sizzling chicken and sprayed condiments into burritos from what looked like industrial caulking guns.

“I think anyone that eats here already understands that they are eating such unhealthy food that one more carcinogen is sort of a drop in the bucket,” said 24-year-old Nick Namoto, who comes to the restaurant because it’s quick and cheap.

“Is it fair that you poison people with food? Not really. But people are eating here willingly,” he said, “and people that don’t know that they’re eating poison here are idiots.”

While it might be common knowledge that fast food is far from wholesome, the physicians group said they are targeting KFC because the company has been marketing its grilled chicken products as a healthy alternative to its fried foods.

He said the suit hopes to set a precedent by requiring warning labels that will be applied to other products containing PhIP beyond the poultry empire built by Colonel Sanders.

Numerous studies conducted over decades have shown eating PhIP significantly increases the risk of developing various forms of cancer, Kinburn said.

According to California’s Proposition 65, passed in 1986, businesses must warn customers if they are exposing them to chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.

While the lawsuit targets KFC, Kinburn said PhIP isn’t limited to chicken prepared by the fast food chain. He said the chemical is produced anytime chicken is cooked above 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Whether you do it in a fast food restaurant, in sit-down restaurant, in your own oven or on a barbeque grill, you’re going to get PhIP,” he said. “Actually, all animal flesh cooked hot enough and long enough will create PhIP. That includes shrimp and fish.”

Chicken is particularly dangerous because it has to be cooked at temperatures high enough to kill bacteria associated with diseases like salmonella and diphtheria, Kinburn said.

The outer window of the restaurant boasts an advertisement, not a warning label.

The outer window of the restaurant boasts an advertisement, not a warning label.

He said the only ways of cooking the meat without producing PhIP is to microwave it or deep-fry it, but deep-fried chicken is high in fat and microwaved chicken is unappetizing.

Back at KFC in the Mission, 20-year-old Shawn Dickerson was appalled to learn that eating chicken may lead to cancer, but he said that won’t keep him from eating at the restaurant.

“Sometimes you just feel like eating something, so you do it,” he said with nonchalant dismissal. “I’m not going to stop coming here or anything like that.”

Cullen Smith, 29, said customers have a right to know eating chicken may increase their risk of getting cancer.

“I mean, you think you’re buying a product that is going to help your health, or at least keep you alive,” he said between bites of a burrito. “At least the information should be accessible.”