By Steve Hendrix and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Having banished the ritual of the after-dinner cigarette from many eating establishments, governments, restaurant owners and food companies are now targeting another age-old indulgence of dining out: greasy foods.
Across the region, trans fats, the kinds of hydrogenated cooking oils that researchers say contribute to heart disease and obesity, are becoming as welcome in restaurant kitchens as salmonella.
Even as local and state legislators consider outright bans, companies are rushing voluntarily to declare themselves trans-fat-free. In recent weeks, food sellers ranging from Rockville's Silver Diner to the KFC chain have announced plans to eliminate trans fat from their dishes, as did Aramark Corp., which operates concessions at 13 Major League Baseball parks, including Camden Yards in Baltimore. The Girl Scouts this winter proudly proclaimed Thin Mints and their other cookies to be trans-fat-free.
Next week, after successful efforts in New York, Philadelphia and other jurisdictions to ban trans fats from restaurant menus, the Montgomery County Council will take up a proposed countywide ban. A similar measure is on hold in the Maryland General Assembly while the bill's sponsor allows the restaurant industry time to propose voluntary measures.
Neither the county nor the state measure would require restaurants to strike French fries or pie crust from their menus, supporters say, but would instead require them to substitute canola oil or other non-hydrogenated oils in their preparation.
"The alternatives are there," said Montgomery County Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), author of the bill that would ban trans fats in county restaurants as of next January. "Lots of restaurants are already using them. We just want to make sure it happens as soon as possible."
But county restaurant owners, many of whom opposed the council's smoking ban, say they resent the long reach of Montgomery's regulatory arm into their kitchens.
"Our county loves to act as God," said Lynn Martin, owner of Seibel's Family Restaurant in Burtonsville and past president of the Montgomery County Restaurant Association.
The proposals put Montgomery near the forefront of a growing national movement to purge hydrogenated oils from the fried-food chain. Bills to ban or limit the use of trans fats in restaurants or school cafeterias have been introduced this year in 18 state legislatures, following New York City's lead.
A measure to require Virginia education officials to develop guidelines that would eventually rid school cafeterias of trans fats passed the state Senate this winter but did not get out of the House of Delegates. In the District this month, D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) for the third year introduced a bill to require restaurants to label every dish with the trans fat, saturated fat and calorie content as well as other information. The city's restaurant association opposes the measure.
Maryland lawmakers eased off of a statewide ban on restaurant trans fats but could still decide to pursue the issue if voluntary measures fall flat. With a controversial statewide smoking ban for bars and restaurants likely to pass as soon as this week, some lawmakers were reluctant to hit the restaurant industry with two mandates in one year.
The bill's sponsor, Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's), agreed to try a carrot, rather than a stick, approach with the industry: voluntary, gradual elimination of trans fat across the state.
"Restaurants and manufacturers pleaded with us for an incentive program," Hubbard said this week. "This is better than forcing it down their throats. The whole idea is to try to do something to save lives. If it works, great. If not, we'll be back with another bill next year."
The only state to enact legislation so far is New Jersey, whose bill requires school cafeterias to reduce purchase and consumption of foods containing trans fats. A number of cities and private companies also are moving to eliminate or reduce trans fats. As lawmakers respond to public awareness of the issue, the industry has pushed for voluntary measures, saying that restaurants don't have enough suitable alternatives yet and shouldn't be regulated.
In Maryland, Hubbard sent a letter to Health Secretary John M. Colmers this month, asking him to work with the restaurant association on a voluntary measure similar to one the industry is negotiating with the city of Baltimore. Restaurants that remove trans fats from their foods would get state-issued decals, which they would put on their windows.
"It's a special seal, like a gold star," said Melvin Thompson, spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "It certainly shows the customer that this restaurant has been recognized for going above and beyond."
Thompson said restaurants do not have sufficient alternatives: Soybean and canola oil can be substituted for trans fat in some foods, but production is insufficient, he said.
"Right now, if you make me do this, I might have to switch back to butter, and then you haven't reduced anyone's cholesterol."
Martin said she has worked for almost a year to wring trans fat from her restaurant's offerings. And although she found alternatives for most trans fats, such as the oil used in deep frying, other products were hard to replace, particularly the baked pies and pastries she buys from national suppliers.
"The county isn't going to be able to legislate Sara Lee," Martin said. "To be totally trans-fat-free is almost going to be humanly impossible."
Some restaurants, eager to bill themselves as trans-fat-free, have made the switch. Several large chains such as Legal Seafoods, Ruby Tuesday and Quizno's are in the process of eliminating trans fats from their menus, according to the Maryland Restaurant Association. Others such as McDonald's offer some foods low in trans fat. Bethesda-based Marriott Corp. announced in February that it will ban trans-fat cooking oil from its more than 2,300 hotels in North America.
Public health activists welcome the flurry of state and local action and have criticized the federal government for failing to act.
"Ideally, the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] would use its authority to get rid of artificial trans fat across the nation," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.