HARTFORD, Conn. — State lawmakers nationwide want to trim the fat, and they aren't talking about budgets this time.
After New York City approved a ban on trans fats in restaurants and school cafeterias in early December, legislators in California, Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts followed suit with proposals for full or partial statewide bans. The tide grew stronger in January with additional calls for prohibiting trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, by state legislators in Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia.
The proposals are modeled after the new rules imposed by the New York City Board of Health that ban the use of most of the artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising oils that typically are used to prepare pizza, french fries and pancakes by July 2008.
"By forcing some of the world's largest food chains and restaurants to use healthier alternatives in their food preparation, New York City has paved the way for what I hope will be a national movement to improve health quality of the food we eat in restaurants," said Connecticut Senate Minority Leader Pro Tempore John McKinney (R) in December when he announced his co-sponsorship of a similar bill for the Connecticut General Assembly.
The Connecticut proposal - with support from the leadership of both parties - would not affect pre-packaged products such as a bag of potato chips, but mandates the elimination of trans fats in food prepared by restaurants by July 2008.
Of the 12 states that have proposed bans, legislators in three states - California, New Hampshire and New York - have suggested that the ban apply to both school cafeterias and restaurants. Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia will consider proposals to prohibit trans fats in schools.Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island are focused on eliminating trans fats in restaurants.
One of a handful of related bills in California aims to extend the ban to packaged foods that contain trans fats. Bills in Florida and South Carolina would require restaurants to disclose whether they use trans fats.
Overall, the concept appears to have bipartisan support in many states. The Massachusetts ban was proposed by a Democrat, while in California, a Republican lawmaker took the lead. The New York City ban was pushed by Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The restaurant industry says the July 2008 deadline, which New York City has implemented and that Connecticut is considering, poses a burden.
"We are not disputing the health of trans fats, and many restaurants are already moving away from trans fats," said Chrissy Shott, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association . "There are consequences to a 16- to18-month deadline. For alternatives, we have to plant, grow and harvest to test for restaurants to make sure it works with the recipes."
Corn oils and palm oils are widely available as a potential replacement, said Robert Reeves, president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils , a trade group for the refiners of edible fats and oils. However other potential replacements for trans fats such as cotton seed, peanut, sunflower and even certain soybean and canola oils will be in short supply when bans take effect, Reeves said.
Several chain restaurants, including Dunkin' Donuts, KFC, McDonald's, Olive Garden, Taco Bell and Wendy's have begun the process of reducing or eliminating trans fats from their foods. Actions already taken by the industry eliminate the need for a government mandate, Shott said.
But government action proved necessary in New York City: In June 2005, New York encouraged restaurants to voluntarily drop trans fats as part of an educational outreach program, said Erica Lessem, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The notice sent to restaurants after the adoption of the new rule last December stated that "use (of trans fats) remained common and has not declined substantially, despite the Trans Fat Education Campaign."
Some of the larger chain restaurants deserve credit for eliminating unhealthy fats, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C.-based health advocacy group. Despite that, the center said that two of the biggest chains - McDonalds and Burger King - and many medium-sized chains have made little progress in switching to healthier oils.
"When trans fats labeling went into effect in the supermarket, large food manufacturers competed against each other to see who could get rid of artificial trans fat the fastest," said Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the CSPI in a year-end statement . "But restaurants didn't have labeling as an incentive to change so they've needed other incentives: a lawsuit here, a municipal phase-out proposal there."
Elimination of trans fats would reduce coronary heart disease — the primary cause of the nation's 1.2 million heart attacks that occur every year — by 19 percent, according to theNew England Journal of Medicine.
A Harvard University report titled "Trans Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease," estimated that one in five heart attacks in the United States are caused by eating trans fats.
"There is an overwhelming amount of evidence out there revealing just how damaging trans fats are," said Massachusetts state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, the Democratic House chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, in a statement last December. "We have the opportunity to vastly improve public health by directing restaurants to switch to healthier alternatives that will make food dramatically healthier."
U.S. restaurants use 13.7 million pounds of trans fats per day, according to the National Restaurant Association. The popularity is partly a result of how inexpensive trans fats are, compared to healthier alternatives. Trans fats cost 31.5 cents per pound compared to 60 cents per pound for healthier alternatives, according to Forbes magazine.
Prior to filing a bill to ban trans fat, California Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R) traveled to New York City to meet with health officials there to learn more about the issue.
"As part of our efforts to address obesity, diabetes and heart disease, it's time California look at the impact trans fats have on our lives," Garcia said in a Dec. 18 statement when the bill was introduced last year. "With this bill as a starting point, we'll be able to bring all of the interested groups together to discuss how best to implement this legislation and improve the health of Californians."
Several cities, including Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago, Cleveland, Louisville, Ky., and Philadelphia are also considering municipal bans. But Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky have yet to propose statewide bans.
Fred Lucas is a reporter for Cybercast News Service in Alexandria, Va. He previously covered the Connecticut and Kentucky statehouses.