By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a ban on partially hydrogenated oils in restaurants, supermarket bakeries and delis yesterday, becoming the first county in the nation to restrict artery-clogging trans fats.
The move comes as health officials across the country decry a rise in bad eating habits, growing waistlines and an increase in heart disease and other ailments. The anti-trans fat bill puts Montgomery in the vanguard of a growing national movement to make it easier to obtain healthy foods in restaurants and grocery stores.
Montgomery's measure follows similar legislation in New York and Philadelphia, which ordered trans fats removed from restaurant menus this year and next. The county's new health regulation will take effect in January for restaurants and other establishments serving food and in January 2009 for establishments offering baked goods, other than packaged goods made outside the county.
Sara Lee cakes, for example, will be exempt. Dunkin' Donuts, which bakes doughnuts in its stores daily, will have to comply. The annual church supper, which fits the county's definition of a food service establishment, would have to stop using trans fatty oils unless organizers get a waiver from the county health department. Foods with 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving are allowed.
The measure doesn't eliminate such items as french fries or desserts from restaurant menus but requires that they be made with healthier oils, such as canola or soy.
The bill gives businesses and nonprofit groups a chance to delay using replacement oils if they can't find them easily. Signs will be posted to alert customers to the ban or to the establishment's decision to get a waiver and use trans fats up to one year beyond the deadline.
The Montgomery regulation could have a broader reach because of the county's sweeping definition of what it means to be in the business of serving food. Religious establishments, schools and grocery store salad bars are subject to the county's regulation.
Trans fat, which contributes to "bad cholesterol" levels, is made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, which helps increase the shelf life and flavor of certain foods. Trans fat is in many vegetable shortenings, margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and chicken fingers and other fried foods.
Although nutritionists recommend that all diets include some unsaturated fats in moderation, trans fats are considered unhealthy in any amount. The Food and Drug Administration began requiring trans fat amounts on food labels last year.
Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), the bill's chief sponsor, said she thinks the food industry will be able to adjust. Some Montgomery establishments, such as the Silver Diner and Marriott Corp., stopped using trans fats voluntarily.
"The goal is to protect the public health," she said. "People want to know what they are eating."
The bill takes effect without the signature of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) because it is a health regulation, which the council can enact on its own. A spokesman for Leggett said he supports the measure, which the county health department will enforce.
Restaurateurs say that it could be difficult for them to find healthy replacements for trans fatty oils and that they might have to use artery-clogging palm and coconut oils or butter.
Melvin Thompson, chief lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said his organization will not oppose the bill.
"This is something that our industry is moving towards anyway," he said as he left the council session after the vote. "But we wanted to be sure lawmakers aren't quicker than the food science."
Gene Wilkes, owner of Tastee Diners in Bethesda and Silver Spring, said the ban will force him to eliminate certain items, such as lemon meringue pie and chocolate cream pie, which he buys from a supplier. His popular biscuits, made in bulk at the diners from a General Mills mix that contains trans fats, will be a no-no. He said he'll begin making them from scratch, most likely.
Wilkes said he has begun to use healthier oil for deep-frying and grilling. And soon, butter, not less costly margarine, will be on the hundreds of pieces of toast his 24-hour establishments serve each day. But he is annoyed about the treatment of packaged foods.
"It could have six grams of trans fat; it could have 10 grams. But if I take the pie, take the plastic dome off of it, cut it into separate pieces and serve it, then it has to have less than half a gram. That doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.
The measure marks the second time in recent memory that Montgomery has taken the lead on a health issue of national significance. The council was among the first in Maryland to institute a smoking ban in restaurants and bars.
Bills to ban or limit the use of trans fats in restaurants or school cafeterias have been introduced this year in 18 state legislatures.
Maryland lawmakers backed away from a proposed statewide ban on restaurant trans fats this year.
The only state to enact legislation is New Jersey, whose bill requires school cafeterias to reduce the purchase and consumption of foods containing trans fats.
A measure to require Virginia education officials to develop guidelines that would eventually rid school cafeterias of trans fats passed the Senate this winter but stalled in the House of Delegates.
In the District, a bill submitted by D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) for the third year is under consideration. It would require restaurants to label every dish with its trans fat, saturated fat and calorie content, as well as other information.