Overwhelming evidence and physician consensus regarding the negative health consequences of artificial trans fatty acids has inspired the New York City Health Department to consider regulating public consumption of trans fats. The proposal under consideration would prohibit restaurants from serving foods containing partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fats. Linked mainly to heart disease, these artery-clogging ingredients are found mainly in ingredients such as shortenings, margarine, and frying oils, not to mention snacks and desserts like French fries and doughnuts.
Not surprisingly, members of the restaurant industry have expressed concern over such a proposal. The Health Department’s demands, if passed, would require cooks to reassess their recipes, to restock their shelves, and establish new modes and strategies for efficiency in the kitchen with regard to the logistics and processes of meal preparation. Restaurants would also face a fine if inspectors find banned ingredients in prepared foods. Some disgruntled voices reference the millions of Americans who use these same ingredients and qualify the Health Departments potential action as an inappropriate intervention.
Though recognizing the constraints and costs the proposal would place on the restaurant industry, representatives of the Health Department feel that the stipulations of the ban are not insurmountable—other cooking oils can take the place of trans fats, explained Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden. Furthermore, he claimed that these replacements change the taste of foods for the better, if at all, even as they greatly lessen associated health risks.
If nothing else, the discussion seems to be motivating large companies to act preemptively—a small but measurable step. Wendy’s has fully transitioned to cooking oils that contain no trans fats, Crisco now offers a zero-trans fats shortening option, and other companies such as Frito-Lay and Kraft’s has removed trans fats from various products. In other words, it seems that in removing trans fats from their products, companies that previously catered to lower-income consumers are expanding consumer choices regarding personal health. While some might consider government intervention a restriction of choice on the part of the chef and the client, one might also consider it an effort to extend healthy options to a population that traditionally has faced limited food choices, both in the grocery store and in private establishments.
Precedent for the politicization of consumer choice exists in past dialogues and policy decisions. Chicago is considering a similar ban against trans fats that would hit all establishments with annual revenues greater than $20 million, namely fast food chains. Such targeted policymaking makes sense given that fast food chains are not only among the worst offenders, but also have the resources to undertake such a drastic change. The current conversation on banning fats follows on the heels of a similar discussion regarding tobacco use, which ultimately resulted in the prohibition of smoking in public establishments in cities and towns nationwide. Amazingly, even France just announced a ban on smoking, effective in 2007.
Currently, several government institutions regulate various kinds of risk on behalf of Americans. From its inception, the FDA has acted specifically to mediate health risks. Over the past century or so, the FDA has blocked and recalled various products from the market based on health information. For example, the discovery of poisonous preservatives in part inspired the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. In 1958, the Food Additives Amendment prohibited the approval of additives shown to induce cancer in humans or animals. And more recently, in 2004 the FDA banned dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids based on associated adverse events.
The New York City Health Department certainly does not have the jurisdiction of the FDA. However, the proposal under consideration is a response to an obvious local need to stem the growing health threat posed by cardiovascular disease, a condition with grave, but preventable, physical, emotional and financial costs. While some may think ban hits at the heart of American life—outlawing items from fried chicken to apple pie—as Walter Willett, the esteemed chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard University School of Public Health, emphasized, the proposal under consideration in New York City could save tens of thousands of lives.
New York Times Online
NYC mulls ban on trans fats in eateries
By DAVID B. CARUSO, Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK - Three years after the city banned smoking in restaurants, health officials are talking about prohibiting something they say is almost as bad: artificial trans fatty acids.
The city health department unveiled a proposal Tuesday that would bar cooks at any of the city's 24,600 food service establishments from using ingredients that contain the artery-clogging substance, commonly listed on food labels as partially hydrogenated oil.
Artificial trans fats are found in some shortenings, margarine and frying oils and turn up in foods from pie crusts to french fries to doughnuts.
Doctors agree that trans fats are unhealthy in nearly any amount, but a spokesman for the restaurant industry said he was stunned the city would seek to ban a legal ingredient found in millions of American kitchens.
"Labeling is one thing, but when they totally ban a product, it goes well beyond what we think is prudent and acceptable," said Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the city's chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.
He said the proposal could create havoc: Cooks would be forced to discard old recipes and scrutinize every ingredient in their pantry. A restaurant could face a fine if an inspector finds the wrong type of vegetable shortening on its shelves.
The proposal also would create a huge problem for national chains. Among the fast foods that would need to get an overhaul or face a ban: McDonald's french fries, Kentucky Fried Chicken and several varieties of Dunkin' Donuts.
Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden acknowledged that the ban would be a challenge for restaurants, but he said trans fats can easily be replaced with substitute oils that taste the same or better and are far less unhealthy. "It is a dangerous and unnecessary ingredient," Frieden said. "No one will miss it when it's gone."
A similar ban on trans fats in restaurant food has been proposed in Chicago and is still under consideration, although it has been ridiculed by some as unnecessary government meddling.
The latest version of the Chicago plan would only apply to companies with annual revenues of more than $20 million, a provision aimed exclusively at fast-food giants.
A few companies have moved to eliminate trans fats on their own. Wendy's announced in August that it had switched to a new cooking oil that contains no trans fatty acids. Crisco now sells a shortening that contains zero trans fats. Frito-Lay removed trans fats from its Doritos and Cheetos. Kraft's took trans fats out of Oreos.
McDonald's began using a trans fat-free cooking oil in Denmark after that country banned artificial trans fats in processed food, but it has yet to do so in the United States.
Walt Riker, vice president of corporate communications at McDonald's, said in a statement Tuesday that the company would review New York's proposal.
"McDonald's knows this is an important issue, which is why we continue to test in earnest to find ways to further reduce (trans fatty acid) levels," he said.
Under the New York proposal, restaurants would need to get artificial trans fats out of cooking oils, margarine and shortening by July 1, 2007, and all other foodstuffs by July 1, 2008. It would not affect grocery stores. It also would not apply to naturally occurring trans fats, which are found in some meats and dairy.
The Board of Health has yet to approve the proposal and will not do so until at least December, Frieden said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring food labels to list trans fats in January.
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard University School of Public
Health, praised New York health officials for considering a ban, which he said could save lives.
"Artificial trans fats are very toxic, and they almost surely causes tens of thousands of premature deaths each year," he said. "The federal government should have done this long ago."