WASHINGTON — Whether they are called freedom fries or french fries, the fast-food staple is taking a hit from consumers worried about their waistlines.
The government's latest statistics show production of french fries rose 2 percent last year. But a trade group for potato growers says sales are leveling off as consumer advocates and some nutritionists blame fries for Americans' struggle with fat.
Sales in the first quarter of this year were down by more than 5 percent from a peak of $520 million in the first quarter of 2001, according to the United States Potato Board.
Total sales and total pounds of fries consumed are comparable to figures from the late 1990s, the board said. In 2001, the average consumer ate 29.4 pounds of frozen potato products, down 2.4 percent from the record set in 1996.
Agriculture Department economists warned last year that french fry consumption levels would flatten because worldwide growth in the fast-food industry was slowing.
Malcolm M. Knapp, a restaurant industry consultant, said negative publicity surrounding fats and oils has not helped fry sales.
"There's been enormous publicity about trans fatty acid, what you cook your fries in," Knapp said.
The Food and Drug Administration recently told food companies to begin labeling how much trans fatty acid is in their products. Trans fat appears in many baked and fried goods, particularly those made with animal fat and hydrogenated oils. Scientists have found that trans fat increases the risk of heart disease.
Some french fries are made in vegetable oil, but consumers often don't know the difference, Knapp said. Consequently, some probably are asking restaurants to hold the fries, he said.