LAST LAUGH: Foods prepared in trans fat-laden oils may soon be illegal in many areas.
BOOK 'EM: Get ahead of the trans fat curve or a health inspector may bust you.
FAST FIX: Can manufacturers supply you with no-trans fat products? Many already do.
Get ready. The food police—and we are not using the pejorative term for nutritional activists, referring instead to badge-bearing government employees with real-world enforcement powers— will be coming to full-service restaurant kitchens soon. They'll be there to monitor compliance with one of the no-trans fat initiatives now cropping up around the country. It's meant to be a crackdown on fast food restaurants, but make no mistake: full-service operations will be getting full scrutiny, too.
First up is New York City. Its health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, has proposed a regulation that would severely limit artificial trans fat (a small amount occurs naturally in foods like milk and beef) in all food served in New York City restaurants. Officials in other jurisdictions—Chicago, Washington, DC, the entire state of New Jersey—want to jump onto the anti-trans fat bandwagon soon as soon as possible.
The proposal would also require restaurants that currently provide calorie information for standardized menu items to list calorie counts on menus and menu boards. Ten percent of NYC restaurants will be affected.
When will all this take place? Probably this month. They're fast-forwarding the lengthy review process that precedes most public policy changes. One public hearing, one vote by the New York City Board of Health and bingo, the inspectors hit the streets.
New York City health authorities will then have far-reaching new powers over how operators prepare food and describe it on their menus. They will also have a small army of inspectors ready and able to enforce this new regulation. Frieden's organization has a $1.6 billion budget and 6,000 employees.
How will it work? The city's health inspectors will check for the presence of trans fat during routine inspections—an annual affair for restaurants in New York City. Following a short phase-in period, those caught with trans fat items on site will face fines ranging between $200 and $2,000.
To be fair, Frieden did try to get operators to go along voluntarily last year. "Trans fat is artificially added to the foods we eat and is easily removed," he said in June, 2005. "To help combat heart disease, the number one killer in New York City, we are asking restaurants to voluntarily make an oil change and remove artificial trans fat from their kitchens."
Frieden was asking then. He's mandating now.
But let's examine that "to help combat heart disease" part of his statement. Most operators welcome health inspectors into their kitchens because they check for conditions that could create unsafe food or, worse, could contribute to a foodborne illness outbreak like salmonella or E. coli. No one wants that.
The trans fat rule is different. Foodborne illness is an acute problem, caused by improper handling of food in your kitchen or by a supplier upstream from you. Frieden's proposal would govern a food substance that might, someday, alleviate a chronic condition generally thought to be highly correlated to lifestyle choices made over a lengthy period by the consumer.
Hard evidence that the occasional consumption of trans fats via restaurant meals is the difference-maker in any individual's heart disease? There isn't any. Nor has anyone made the definitive case that posting calorie counts on menus and menu boards has a measurable effect on heart disease, either.
A second factor here relates to the reason operators use trans fat oils in the first place. It's what food industry manufacturers came up with after being urged (by the previous holders of jobs similar to the ones now held by the no-trans fat advocates) to replace then prevalent saturated fat-based products like beef tallow, coconut oil, palm oil and lard. The trans fat selling point then: these oils increase shelf life and stabilize the flavor of foods.
At one point, oils with trans fat were the nutrition lobby's oil of choice; now you can get fined for using them. Will there also be a penalty for using just-as-bad proven artery cloggers like coconut oil or lard in your restaurant? Nope. Or maybe we should say, not yet.
So is it easy to get rid of trans fat from restaurant kitchens? Nominally, yes. Just spec a trans-fat free oil on your next order and ask your distributor sales reps to make sure any other products shipped to you are trans-fat free. Advocates say trans fat-free oils cost about the same as trans fat-laden oils, and food items prepared with them taste about the same. We queried an executive from a cooking oil supplier about this claim. His reply: "If it was this simple, don't you think everyone in New York would have done it already?"
Touchè. Yet some restaurants have already done away with trans fat oils voluntarily. The list includes Wendy's, Legal Sea Foods, Chili's, Au Bon Pain, even all 18 restaurants in Tiburon, CA.
The experts say that, long-term, removing trans fats from NYC kitchens will save 500 lives a year. We hope that's true. But it seems to us that you'd have to control a myriad of other factors to ever know what the number is. The direct benefit, if any, seems unknowable.
What is knowable is that an initiative similar to this one could pop up soon where you do business. When it does, it may pay you to be ahead of the curve—or be ready to do battle.