• NYC Weighs Possible Trans Fats Ban
  • October 31, 2006 | Authors: Jeffrey S. Edelstein; Linda A. Goldstein
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - New York Office
  • A proposed trans fats ban being floated by the New York City Board of Health could prove a huge and expensive headache for the restaurant industry nationwide, forcing it to alter recipes in markets beyond the city to guarantee a consistent product, and threatening it with the loss of customers who bypass the trans fat-free foods because of taste.

    Dr. Thomas Frieden, New York City’s health commissioner, last month announced the move that would force fast food and other restaurants to remove most of the trans fats from their foods and list calories for each item on their menu boards. The proposal would require restaurants to reduce the contribution of trans fats to a half gram per serving, a drastic move for some—a large order of French fries from McDonald’s contains about eight grams of trans fat, or four times the two grams per day recommended by the American Heart Association.

    As proposed, the first deadline would be to lower the trans fat levels for cooking oils and fats by July 1, 2007, and all other foods a year later. The city will hold a public hearing on October 30 to debate the proposals.

    Trans fats are unsaturated fatty acids produced by the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils and are present in hardened vegetable oils, most margarines, commercial baked foods, and many fried foods. An excess of these fats in the diet is thought to raise the cholesterol level in the bloodstream. Restaurants have used trans fats, otherwise known as partially hydrogenated fats, because it increases the shelf life of foods, maintains taste and texture, and prevents oils from becoming rancid.

    Complicating the issue is that most restaurants use pre-cooked or partially cooked and prepared foods from suppliers that also contain trans fats. Of the 22.2 billion pounds of edible fats and oils shipped domestically in 2005, 6 to 7 billion pounds are hydrogenated to some degree.

    Proponents of the ban point to Wendy’s. After two years of research and testing, Wendy’s was the first national fast-food chain to remove trans fats from its cooking oils and pre-cooked chicken products. While a spokesperson admitted that most customers aren’t concerned about trans fats, those who are concerned “are very concerned,” he said. The chain soon will roll out bags and fry cartons in New York and Florida that tout the fact its cooking oil has zero grams of trans fats.

    Many smaller players also have begun to switch cooking oils, including Chili’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Au Bon Pain, and Panera Bread. Meanwhile, industry giants such as McDonald’s Corporation and Yum Brands’ KFC and Taco Bell continue to test alternate oils. “McDonald’s knows this is an important issue, which is why we continue to test in earnest to find ways to further reduce [trans fat],” McDonald’s said in a statement. “We will closely examine the Board’s proposal.”

    In the meantime, groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have lobbied with local, state, and federal officials to adopt their trans fat-free cause. The New York proposal follows an industry effort to voluntarily switch to healthier oils and a similar proposal made earlier this year by Chicago Alderman Ed Burke. That measure has been tabled to give more time for restaurants to work toward their own voluntary measure.

    Significance: A New York City law banning trans fats from restaurant offerings will surely have repercussions well beyond the boroughs. Restaurant chains will want to create a consistent taste and “mouth feel” experience and may find it logistically difficult and costly to set up trans fat-free supply and production chains just for the New York market.