Stiff reduction proposed
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, New York City's health commissioner, yesterday announced the move that would force the likes of McDonald's Corp., KFC and Dunkin' Donuts 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 8 grams of trans-fat, for example. That's four times the 2 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 Oct. 30 to debate the proposals.
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.
Changing the 'mouth-feel'
"Our industry cannot support a mandate that would ban trans-fats," said Sheila Weiss, a registered dietician and director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association. "When you change the type of oil you change the taste and 'mouth-feel' and a lot of restaurants want to make sure that the taste stays the same so customers will enjoy the variety of foods they are offered."
Also complicating the issue is that most restaurants use pre-cooked or partially cooked and prepared foods from suppliers that also contain trans-fats. Case in point: Although Ruby Tuesday and Chik-fil-A use trans-fat-free oils to fry foods, their suppliers still pre-fry items in partially hydrogenated oils.
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 and therefore could be scrutinized, said Robert M. Reeves, president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils. "Many people have the erroneous assumption that it would take a few weeks of research and we can turn these products out, but nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
"If it were easy to do, it would have been done already," he said, calling the proposed bans to speed up the process as misguided. "If the solutions could come rapidly, they would."
Wendy's as Exhibit A
Proponents of the ban point to Wendy's as Exhibit A. 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 spokesman 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.
In addition to Ruby Tuesday, 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 Corp. 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."
Dunkin' Donuts in a statement said, "In Fall 2004, Dunkin' Donuts acted independently to remove trans-fats from our bagels, muffins, and cookies, and we have not introduced trans-fats into any products launched since that time. Our research and development team has been investigating alternative cooking methods for our donuts as technology continues to advance."
Pressure by consumer groups
Unsatisfied with the industry's progress, 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.
"Selling food cooked in or with partially hydrogenated oils is like selling a car without seatbelts," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement. "Partially hydrogenated oil causes thousands of avoidable premature deaths, and the restaurant industry's reluctance to change is absolutely reckless."
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.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the industry is that it has been burned many times by trying to satisfy perceived health demands with foods that go unsold.
"The concern is that [manufacturers] do all these things and they meet with a resounding thud," said Bob Goldin, exec VP of Technomic. "The legislators don't know what the heck they're getting themselves into. They can outlaw trans-fatty oil and the chains will push back like crazy because you [can't] use it in one market and not another. I don't know if that's a prudent way to go. I don't think there's a burning desire for consumers because they don't understand it that well."