California Bars Restaurant Use of Trans Fats

Published 29 July 08 12:35 PM
Published: July 26, 2008

LOS ANGELES — California, a national trendsetter in all matters edible, became the first state to ban trans fats in restaurants when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill Friday to phase out their use.

Under the new law, trans fats, long linked to health problems, must be excised from restaurant products beginning in 2010, and from all retail baked goods by 2011. Packaged foods will be exempt.

New York City adopted a similar ban in 2006 — it became fully effective on July 1 — and Philadelphia, Stamford, Conn., and Montgomery County, Md., have done so as well.

But having the requirement imposed on the most populous state’s 88,000 restaurants, as well as its bakeries and other food purveyors, is a major gain for the movement against trans fats. That movement has been led by scientists, doctors and consumer advocates who trace the largely synthetic fat to a variety of ailments, principally heart disease.

“I think the potential here is real for a far greater understanding of the harms of trans fats, and to encourage more states to do the same,” Dr. Clyde Yancy, incoming president of the American Heart Association, said of the California law’s enactment.

Trans fats are created by pumping hydrogen into liquid oil at high temperature, a process called partial hydrogenation. The process results in an inexpensive fat that prolongs the shelf life and appearance of packaged foods and that, many fast-food restaurants say, helps make cooked food crisp and flavorful.

But trans fats have also been found in scientific studies to lower high-density lipoproteins, the “good” cholesterol, while increasing low-density lipoproteins, the “bad” cholesterol, high levels of which contribute to the onset of heart disease, the leading cause of death in California and the nation.

Dr. Yancy said a 2 percent increase in trans-fat intake could result over time in a 25 percent increase in the likelihood of developing coronary artery disease. “These are data we are just now beginning to understand,” he said. “It is pretty clear now that it was a mistake for us to embrace these fats.”

Under the new law, restaurants, bakeries, delicatessens, cafeterias and other businesses classified as “food facilities” will, in the preparation of any foods, have to discontinue use of oils, margarine and shortening containing trans fats.

Those purveyors will have to keep the labels on their cooking products so that the products can be inspected for trans fat, a process that will become part of the duties of local health inspectors. Violators will face fines beginning at $25 and increasing to as much as $1,000 for subsequent violations.

Trans fats are also linked to obesity, and the bill’s author, Tony Mendoza, a Democratic assemblyman and former fourth-grade teacher from Southern California, said he had been inspired by the number of obese children he saw in school.

“They are heavy,” Mr. Mendoza said. “They eat out a lot, and you realize there are trans fats out there. You don’t want kids to start off on the wrong foot.”

Opposition to the move came largely from the California Restaurant Association, which argued that singling out trans fats as a singularly harmful food product was arbitrary and that a mandate would prove expensive. Further, the association said, a ban for health reasons is the purview of the federal government, not the states.

“We don’t doubt the health findings surrounding trans fats,” said Lara Dunbar, the association’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Our opposition was philosophical. Banning one product isn’t necessarily the right solution.”

In addition, Ms. Dunbar said, many of the state’s restaurants have already eliminated trans fats. “We don’t think you need a mandate,” she said. “Restaurants responded to a consumer demand.”

Among national chains, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, the Cheesecake Factory and McDonald’s have all begun to move away from trans fats because of consumer concerns.

In many high-end restaurants in this state — where the organic foods movement began and where many a food trend has been born — chefs would no more use trans fats in their cooking than use paper tablecloths in their dining rooms.

Some restaurateurs, however, say the change has been costly, because there are fewer distributors of the alternative oils.

“The only effect it is going to have on the consumer is that we are going to have to raise our prices,” said Tina Pantazis, the manager of Dino’s Burgers, which operates two hamburger outlets — one in Los Angeles, the other in Azusa. Ms. Pantazis said the price of those restaurants’ French fries, which now cost $1.75 an order, would most likely be bumped up to at least $2.75.

The Dino’s in Los Angeles has already begun using new oils, she said, adding that she could taste the difference but that there had been no complaints from customers. The Azusa location will move to be compliant soon.

“I think this is good for the health of the consumer,” Ms. Pantazis said. “On the other hand, people who eat French fries are not concerned with their health that much.”

To many health policy makers, though, trans fats have become almost the enemy that cigarettes became long ago.

New York’s anti-trans-fat movement, led by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is still in its early days. The first phase, which began last year, made a target of frying oils and spreads. This month, the program was extended to baked goods.

Nearly all the 25,000 restaurants inspected have proved compliant, according to the city’s health department. New York has also offered a Trans Fat Help Center where bakers were schooled in the use of alternative fats.

California, which supplies a great deal of the nation’s specialty crops, already has some of the toughest food restrictions in the nation, including a ban on junk food and trans fats in school meals.

On Friday, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican whose positions on consumer issues often align closely with those of Democrats who control the Legislature, praised the new statute, which the lawmakers passed last week.

“California is a leader in promoting health and nutrition, and I am pleased to continue that tradition by being the first state in the nation to phase out trans fats,” the governor said in a statement. “Consuming trans fat is linked to coronary heart disease, and today we are taking a strong step toward creating a healthier future for California.”


No Comments
Anonymous comments are disabled

This Blog