New York is first city in the nation to ban trans fats from restaurants

Wednesday, December 6, 2006
H. Kenneth Woods, chef and owner of Sylvia's restaurant, cooked Southern fried chicken using a soybean oil that doesn't contain trans fats in this Sept. 29 file photo taken in New York's Harlem neighborhood. The Board of Health voted Tuesday to make New York the nation's first city to ban artery-clogging artificial trans fats at restaurants. (Associated Press file photo)

NEW YORK -- New York on Tuesday became the first city in the nation to ban artery-clogging trans fats at restaurants, leading the charge to limit consumption of an ingredient linked to heart disease and used in everything from french fries to pizza dough to pancake mix.

In a city where eating out is a major form of activity -- either for fun or out of hectic necessity -- many New Yorkers were all for the ban, saying that health concerns were more important than fears of Big Brother supervising their stomachs.

"I don't care about what might be politically correct and what's not," said Murray Bader, nursing a cup of coffee at Dunkin' Donuts on Tuesday morning. "I want to live longer!"

The 72-year-old Manhattan resident called the ban a "wakeup call" for a public often unaware of the risks of artificial fats. "This stuff clogs up your vessels," he said. "When it comes to health, we only have one life."

Toni Lewis, catching a quick dinner at McDonald's before her child's piano lesson on the eve of the vote, acknowledged that yes, it might be going too far for the city to tell people what they can and can't put into their stomachs. But, she added: "I welcome the intrusion."

"This is New York," she said. "People eat out a lot. We don't have a choice. We need someone to make it a healthier proposition."

Trans fats are believed harmful in a number of ways, with health authorities saying they clearly contribute to heart disease. Studies have shown they raise bad cholesterol and lower the good kind. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a common form of trans fats, is used for frying and baking and turns up in a host of processed foods: cookies, pizza dough, crackers and premade blends like pancake mix.

"It's basically a slow form of poison," says David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. "I applaud New York City, and frankly, I think there should be a nationwide ban."

Not everyone agrees with Katz -- he's gotten angry e-mails calling him and colleagues the "food police" and saying, "If I want to eat trans fats, that's my inalienable right." To which he responds: "Would you want the burden of asking your restaurant whether there's lead in the food? Whether there's arsenic in the bread? For all I know, maybe arsenic makes bread more crusty. But it's poison."

Some industry representatives were not happy. E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said the city had overstepped its authority by ordering restaurants to abandon an ingredient permitted by the FDA.

"This is a legal product," he said. "They're headed down a slippery slope here."

The Board of Health, which passed the ban unanimously Tuesday, did give restaurants a minor break by relaxing the proposed deadline. Restaurants will now be barred from using most frying oils containing trans fats by July and will have another year to eliminate trans fats from all foods.

The ban, which was advocated by health-conscious Mayor Michael Bloomberg, follows a national requirement beginning this past January that companies list trans-fat content on food labels. Efforts are also being made to reduce the trans-fat content of snacks in school vending machines.

The New York ban does not affect grocery stores. Nor does it apply to naturally occurring trans fats, which are found in some meats and dairy.

McDonalds Corp. has been experimenting with healthier oil blends but has not committed to a full switch yet. Wendy's International Inc. introduced a zero-trans fat oil in August and Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC and Taco Bell said they also will cut trans fats from their kitchens.

At Le Perigord, a tony, sedate French restaurant favored by diplomats from the nearby United Nations, owner Georges Briguet is a big fan of the trans-fats ban, and even says he'd consider putting calorie counts on his own upscale menu -- though it's only chains with standardized items that would be affected.

"In this country there are so many obese people -- it really is a disgrace," Briguet says. "It's important for the health of the population to ban these artificial fats. When I was growing up in France, my mother never even gave me a French fry. We don't have a fryer here. We just sautee our potatoes in some good butter."

The mayor, Briguet added, "is just as responsible for the health of someone eating the wrong food as for someone who kills himself smoking." Bloomberg banned smoking in New York's bars and restaurants during his first term.

The public acceptance of that smoking ban, which at the time was a major source of worry to restaurant owners, shows why food chains should be embracing the current New York ban, says Tim Zagat, publisher of the hugely popular Zagat's restaurant guides.

"You can't put lead in your food, right? With trans fats, you're not going to die as fast, but they are clearly bad for you and people don't even know when they're eating them," Zagat says.

"If I were a restaurant, I would comply as quickly as I possibly could," he said. "Some fast-food chains are in the middle of the railroad track right now. They'd better rethink their business models. This is the next big issue in the United States."

Associated Press writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report.

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