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New York battles new public enemy: trans fat

The Board of Health voted Tuesday to make New York the nation's first city to ban artery-clogging artificial trans fats from restaurants, from corner pizzerias to high-end bakeries.

The board, which passed the ban unanimously, did give the city's 24,000 restaurants a break by relaxing what had been considered a tight deadline for compliance. Restaurants will be barred from using most frying oils containing artificial trans fats by July and will have to eliminate the fats from all their foods by July 2008.

But restaurant industry representatives called the ban burdensome and unnecessary.

"We don't think that a municipal health agency has any business banning a product the Food and Drug Administration has already approved," said Dan Fleshler, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association.

The panel also passed another measure that has made restaurant owners unhappy: Some that choose to inform customers about calorie content will have to list the information right on the menu. It generally applies to major chains.

Sheila Weiss, director of nutritional policy for the Restaurant Association, called the rule a disincentive for restaurants to provide any nutritional information.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has banned smoking in bars and restaurants, dismissed complaints that New York is crossing a line by trying to legislate diets. The ban does not affect grocery stores, nor does it apply to naturally occurring trans fats.

"Nobody wants to take away your french fries and hamburgers - I love those things, too," he said. "But if you can make them with something that is less damaging to your health, we should do that."

The Board of Health said New Yorkers get about one-third of their calories from restaurants.

Sal Melilli, chief operating officer for Hooters Restaurants, based in Clearwater, said the chain has been testing replacements for trans fats and intends to begin using them early next year in all its restaurants.

"We're ahead of that curve," Melilli said. "We have a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, and we'll be doing this before the ban goes into the effect. As many restaurants as Hooters has, we have to be responsible."

Many food manufacturers stopped using trans fats on their own after the FDA in January began requiring companies to list trans fat content on labels. The FDA estimates the average American eats 4.7 pounds of trans fats each year.

McDonald's Corp. has been experimenting with healthier oil blends but has not committed to a full switch. Wendy's International Inc. introduced a zero-trans fat oil in August, and Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC and Taco Bell said they also will cut trans fats.

Although there are no moves to implement a ban on trans fats in Florida, the restaurant industry here is aware of the issue.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association does not yet have a position on trans fats or the New York ban, said spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller.

"Those kinds of positions are set by our board of directors," she said. "It is definitely something we'll address at our January board meeting."

Mosteller said no ban efforts are under way here, but the issue could affect association members. "It's something they need to be aware of and educated about."

At the Friendly Fisherman in Madeira Beach, where fried seafood is a menu staple, trans fats aren't an issue.

Suzanne King, one of the restaurant's managers, said the kitchen fries with liquid vegetable oils. "We have a fryer system that lets us filter and drain the oil and put fresh oil in every day. Who would want to put solid fat in the fryer every day? I don't know why you'd do that."

Tim Zagat, publisher of the popular Zagat's restaurant guides, says restaurants in New York and elsewhere should see the ban as a sign of public concern.

"If I were a restaurant, I would comply as quickly as I possibly could," he said. "This is the next big issue in the United States."

Times staff writer Colette Bancroft contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

What is trans fat?

Trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil - a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats.

What foods contain trans fats?

Trans fat can be found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils, such as french fries and chips.

Where do trans fats come from?

Unlike other fats, most trans fat is formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats, like shortening and hard margarine. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods.

Why are trans fats a problem?

Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL cholesterol that increases your risk for coronary heart disease. Although saturated fat is the main dietary culprit that raises LDL, trans fat and dietary cholesterol also contribute significantly.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov

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