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Lead paint, cigarettes: Are trans fats next?

New York City's Health Department wants to ban trans fats from the menus of the city's restaurants.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2006

Does that jelly doughnut or fried chicken you chomp into contain what many nutritionists say is the worst additive in America's food supply? It might – depending on what recipe was used.

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Researchers have linked the consumption of artificial trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to a higher incidence of certain ailments, including heart disease and diabetes. But restaurants are under no obligation to use trans-fat substitutes or tell customers that they're swallowing a potentially dangerous substance.

"It's kind of a stealth product," says Geoffrey Martin, director of the foods department at Consumer Reports magazine in Yonkers, N.Y.

New York City wants to change that. Late last month, its Health Department proposed to step into the kitchens of the city's restaurants, from fast-food joints to elegant nightspots, and mandate that trans fats in all recipes be removed or reduced to minuscule quantities. The idea has received raves from healthy food advocates but left a sour taste in the mouths of many in the restaurant industry, as well as those concerned that a nosy government is about to invade another aspect of citizens' personal lives.

The proposal, which will be voted on by members of the city's Board of Health later this year, would phase in the ban over an 18-month period. It has aroused wide interest outside the city, since New York has a tradition of taking innovative first steps to protect public health. In 1960, New York prohibited the use of lead paint in buildings, some 18 years before the federal government took similar action. And, more recently, it banned smoking in restaurants in 2003.

Already since New York announced its plans, a legislator in New Jersey has proposed a similar ban on trans fats in her state. The District of Columbia has also expressed interest in the New York initiative.

"New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance without their knowledge or consent," the city's health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said in announcing the proposed ban. "Like lead in paint, artificial trans fat in food is invisible and dangerous.... While it may take some effort, restaurants can replace trans fat without changing the taste or cost of food. No one will miss it when it's gone."

But not everyone agrees. Removing trans fats is "not a health-safety issue," such as the recent deaths attributed to E. coli bacteria in fresh spinach, says Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C., a group funded by the restaurant and food industries. "That's a different issue."

Today's concern over trans fats, Mr. Berman says, has "a little bit too much hysteria, and a little bit too much regulatory involvement here, than there should justifiably be."

Rather than placing a burden on restaurants to police consumption of trans fats, the government ought to ban them outright if it feels they are harmful, says Rick Sampson, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, which represents some 8,500 dining establishments in the state.

"Don't blame the industry," Mr. Sampson says, pointing out that some restaurants already have decided to get rid of trans fats on their own, responding to customer demands.