Trans fat siege intensifies

by Keith Nunes
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At the beginning of every year, a variety of organizations issue their lists of the top 10 trends for the coming year. A few garner attention, but many go relatively unnoticed. Such was the case of the National Conference of State Legislatures (N.C.S.L.), who in January issued its top 10 legislative issues for 2007. At the top of the list were hot button topics such as immigration, homeland security, budgetary pressures and health care reform. But tucked in at the end, in the No. 10 slot, was a topic that had garnered a lot of national attention, but little from state or federal legislatures — obesity. That has now changed.

In its synopsis of the trend, the creators of the N.C.S.L. ranking noted "trans fat, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says can raise levels of ‘bad cholesterol’ in our bodies and increase the risk for heart attack and stroke, has been called ‘the new tobacco.’ The implication is advocates will aggressively try to exert legal and legislative pressure to eliminate trans fat in prepared foods.

"Starting in March, New York City begins a process that eventually will require all restaurants to ban the use of trans fat. A ban is also proposed in Chicago, and Boston has implemented a voluntary program. Since 2003, at least 16 states have considered requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information for standard menu items, including trans fat. The F.D.A. has required trans fat content on nutrition labels since January 2006. Expect several more states to debate trans fat legislation this year, as well as consider other nutrition and physical activity issues to address obesity concerns, particularly for younger Americans."

In December, New York City’s Board of Health approved two proposals designed to ensure consumers have a choice of healthier options for restaurant foods. As of March 1, New York City’s Health Department required restaurants with standard menu items to make calorie information publicly available at the point of purchase by posting it on menus and menu boards, where consumers can see it when they order.

The city also started phasing in a ban on trans fat in all city restaurants, a process that will occur over the next 18 months, requiring food items, including all margarines and shortenings, must contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

Since New York City instituted its trans fat ban, several other cities and states around the country have proposed similar legislation. In early February, Philadelphia passed a similar ban on trans fat contained in products sold at food service.

"This legislation was rushed through the City Council, rushed to the mayor’s desk, and then signed by the mayor within a matter of days," said Steven C. Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association. "We are dismayed by the lack of judgment this shows on the part of council members and Mayor Street. Had they taken the time to conduct a thorough review, they would have discovered that artificial trans fats are already on their way out in restaurants."

At the state level, from as far west as Hawaii to as far east as Florida, state legislatures are attempting to follow in the footsteps of New York City and Philadelphia.

As of January, as many as 12 states have proposed legislation to limit the sale of food products with artificial trans fat. Some proposals target foods served in restaurants while others target foods served in schools or those prepared on premise, whether it is in supermarkets or at food service.

In California, four bills have been proposed in the state legislature. One proposes to prohibit the sale in elementary schools of foods containing partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils, except to the extent the oils are naturally occurring, while another would prohibit the sale of foods not in the manufacturer’s original package that contain trans fat. Similar proposals have emerged in Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire and New Jersey.

Perhaps the most egregious proposal has been made in California and would require food service operators "to maintain on the premises the manufacturer’s documentation or label for any food or food additive that is or includes any fat, oil, or shortening, for as long as this food or food additive is stored, distributed, or served by, or used in the preparation of food within, the food facility. Would prohibit oil, shortening, or margarine containing specified trans fats for specified purposes, from being stored, distributed, or served by, or used in the preparation of any food."

"The restaurant industry led the charge on phasing out trans fat because of consumer demand," said Jot Condie, president and chief executive officer of the California Restaurant Association, Sacramento. "More and more restaurants each day announce they are discontinuing its use. Others have never used it.

"For years, the industry has been providing nutritional information because consumers wanted it. Even though 81% of meals are prepared in the home, restaurants are already making these changes. Evidently, no good deed goes unpunished. Putting these concepts into law will only open the door for liability and lawsuits, and will only benefit those in the legal profession."

Amy Winterfeld, a policy analyst for the N.C.S.L., said the efforts by state legislatures have been caused by a convergence of issues.

"People see the relationship between obesity and increased health care costs and they are trying to do something about it," she said.

Restaurant operators respond

As public concern regarding trans fat content in foods continues, some food service operators have made an effort to remove them from their products, when feasible. Other initiatives under way include providing ways for consumers to learn about the nutrition content of the foods served at various food service chains. Last week, California-based Healthy Dining and the N.R.A. unveiled, a web site designed to help consumers identify nutritious choices served at nearly 30,000 restaurant locations in all 50 states, including P.F. Chang’s, Buca di Beppo, Chili’s, Au Bon Pain and Burger King.

Due to the potential benefit to public health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, provided partial funding for the development of the web site.

"By making healthier food choices, Americans can help reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, which are all major health concerns," said Michelle Reyes, an epidemiologist with the C.D.C. " provides Americans with a tool to identify healthier restaurant menu choices."

Every type of restaurant is featured on the site, from quick-service to fine dining, from independents to the nation’s largest chains. The site provides nutrient values, including calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, sugars, protein, fiber, and fruit and vegetable servings, for featured menu items. Trans fat information will be available in the near future, according to the company.

To be included in the program, entrees must not exceed 750 calories, 25 grams of fat and 8 grams of saturated fat, while the cut-offs for appetizers, side dishes, and desserts are 250 calories, 8 grams of fat and 3 grams of saturated fat. When available, dishes that are lower in sodium and cholesterol also are featured.

In some cases, the operators of the web site work with participating chefs to develop "Special Requests," which may guide consumers on how to order menu items with healthier modifications. Examples include: "Request no butter," or "request dressing on the side," or "request a side of steamed vegetables instead of fries."

"With the steady increase in both restaurant sales and consumer interest in health, many Americans are searching for guidance to help them make smart choices when dining out," said Anita Jones-Mueller, a restaurant nutrition expert and founder of Healthy Dining. "Healthy Dining contributes to this effort by encouraging restaurants nationwide to promote nutritious options that taste great."

Given the growth of the food service segment, with restaurant industry sales expected to reach a record $537 billion in 2007, a 5% increase over 2006 sales, the web site is the latest effort by the industry to be proactive as concerns about the nutrition content of foods served at restaurants continues to be an issue.

"Our research shows nearly three out of four Americans say they are trying to eat more healthfully in restaurants than they did two years ago," said Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy for the N.R.A. " demonstrates the proactive efforts of the restaurant industry and is a great resource for those looking to make smart choices when dining at their favorite restaurants."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 20,2007, starting on Page 32. Click here to search that archive."

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