Maryland Legislators Consider Bills on Food Labeling, Trans Fats

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Your mother is not the only one who'd like to make your food healthier.

Members of the Maryland General Assembly are considering measures aimed at improving food safety and reducing obesity rates.

One proposal heard by a House committee yesterday would follow Montgomery County's lead and ban cholesterol-raising trans fatty acids at restaurants throughout the state. Another measure would require fast-food restaurants and other chain restaurants to conspicuously post calorie counts on their menus, as is now required in New York City.

Other bills would require that labels indicate whether food contains any product from a cloned animal and, to help people with food allergies, whether olive oil contains any other kind of oil.

Not all the measures are likely to be successful. The General Assembly took no action in 2007 on a similar trans fat proposal and rejected a bill last year to require labeling products from cloned animals.

The proposals are part of a national trend related to obesity and food safety. This summer, California became the first state to ban trans fats. Seattle requires menu labeling comparable to what has been proposed in Maryland, and similar legislation goes into effect next week in Portland, Ore.

Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's) said he thinks there is a "national tsunami" of interest in such measures, noting similar bills are pending in 12 states. He said a food industry survey in New York City found that menu labeling has been broadly popular and that consumers feel better informed when they learn the calorie count of popular foods. Niemann is sponsoring the menu measure with Sen. David C. Harrington (D-Prince George's).

Customers are often surprised by the calorie counts: A pumpkin scone at Starbucks has more calories than a pumpkin cream cheese muffin. Gooey grilled cheese for children at Cosi has more calories than a peanut butter sandwich. Niemann noted that the Cosi chain reduced calories in both sandwiches after New York laws required posting the information prominently.

"This bill doesn't limit what anyone can sell, what anyone can eat," he said. "It says you have to tell people the cost of what they are eating."

Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) is encouraging the General Assembly to take action against trans fats. Trans fats are found in oils that some bakeries and restaurants like to use, in part, because they have a long shelf life. Studies have shown that trans fats can contribute to heart disease and other health problems.

The state bill follows similar measures in Montgomery and Baltimore. A representative with the Maryland Restaurant Association told the committee that restaurants in those jurisdictions have found it less difficult and costly to make the transition than they had feared. He said the association could support the bill, provided it was amended to apply to packaged foods sold at retails stores.

The olive oil bill is sponsored by Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) and is intended to protect consumers from being fooled by impure oil. Tests of olive oils have shown that producers sometimes add soybean, hazelnut and peanut oils.

Members of an online cake community appeared before the Health and Government Operations Committee, which was hearing the food-related bills yesterday, to ask that Maryland make it legal for them to sell "non-potentially hazardous" items baked in their homes. Unlike in neighboring states, it is illegal in Maryland for unlicensed and unregulated home bakers to sell their wares.

The bakers said they wanted the ability to start home businesses to supplement their incomes in difficult economic times. But Alan L. Taylor, director of the Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services, told the committee that he opposed the idea because customers would have no way of knowing whether the items had been baked in safe conditions.

"Let's consider some popular pies: Apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin, sweet potato," he said. "Many bakers can produce an excellent pie. But three of those pies are potentially hazardous."

The safer pie? Apple, in part because the filling in the others might contain bad eggs, he said.

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