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October 28, 2009

Trans fat farm

Health Department weighs changes to the local menu

When it comes to local health initiatives, city lawmakers tend to outlaw certain behaviors altogether.

After the city’s controversial smoking ordinance was enacted, Metro Councilman Dan Johnson, D-21, began studying the affects of cooking food in trans fat vegetable oil. As a result, the south Louisville Democrat has repeatedly tried to eradicate the sale of foods containing trans fat.

“Once I studied it, I learned that it’s probably the worst thing that there is for you to eat,” Johnson says. “I mean, it’s off the charts what it does to you versus cigarette smoke.”

Earlier this year, the council stalled on approving Johnson’s latest ordinance seeking to ban artificial trans fat from local eateries. In the end, they watered down the measure, which resulted in a resolution encouraging the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness to come up with an educational program about the dangers of trans fat. The resolution also asked city health officials to further study trans fat and to recommend whether they believe a ban is appropriate.

As part of that undertaking, the Metro Board of Health is holding two community forums this week on the health effects of trans fat. Not surprisingly, local restaurant owners say a ban would be bad for business.

For the past eight months, city health officials have been conducting surveys, holding committee meetings and researching trans fat bans in other cities. Besides an outright ban, the health department could recommend an educational campaign or a voluntary trans fat ban program. Right now city health officials are reserving judgment on a ban, but they are quick to acknowledge trans fat is unhealthy.

“Most people are saying they want a ban on artificial trans fat because it’s unhealthy,” says Dr. Adewale Troutman, director of the Department of Health. “Obviously there are some who resist the idea of a ban, but we’re not supporting the idea of a ban at the moment. We’re just doing an education campaign and holding open forums.”

A recommendation will be made to the mayor and council before Christmas. If city health officials opt to recommend a ban, the law could either apply to only prepared foods in restaurants, or it could be a full ban that would extend to all pre-packaged foods delivered to grocery stores.

Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, says he isn’t convinced Metro government should be telling people what they can and cannot eat.

“I understand that there are things that are not good for us,” says Kramer. “There are lots and lots of things in our diet that we should be aware of, but individuals should be able to make decisions for what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

Unlike the smoking ordinance, which council members supported because the bad habit has an adverse affect on others, Kramer says the trans fat debate represents a stark philosophical contrast about the role of government and individual choice.

“This is different,” he says. “Whether you eat that donut or not has no impact on me.”

GOP council members also worry that pushing for an outright ban will put many area restaurants out of business, as changing recipes may increase costs.

Despite those arguments and some resistance, Johnson is confident the health department will support a full ban once the education campaign is finished. And Johnson is prepared to file a trans fat ordinance before next year.

“I’m going to sponsor it because I know they’re going to do it,” he says. “Like I’ve said dozens of times, trans fat is killing you a lot quicker than cigarettes ever would.”

For over a century trans fat has been a part of the American diet. Developed in the late 1890s by Nobel laureate Paul Sabatier, a French chemist, the flavor-enhancing substance can be found in a variety of foods, including prepared baked goods and fast foods. The system works by adding hydrogen to the frying liquid of vegetable oils to help preserve foods and extend shelf life.

In past decades, however, health advocates have decried the use of trans fat, which is widely believed to cause high cholesterol and increase the chance of heart attacks, diabetes and strokes.

Three years ago, New York became the first city to ban the artery-clogging substance at restaurants and other food service establishments. The success of the ban has spawned similar efforts across the country.

Critics say local health agencies shouldn’t be in the business of barring a product that the Food and Drug Administration has approved.

“We have some very serious public health problems in this country, but none of them are being caused by trans fat,” says Jeff Stier, a spokesman for the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit health organization that opposes such bans. “You wouldn’t know that listening to some of the hysteria, but they aren’t a cause of any disease.”

Founded in 1978, the group regularly produces reports on issues related to food, nutrition and health that defend food industry practices. It also advocates personal responsibility in dietary choices.

Although Louisville’s health department stresses the forums are educational and that they’re still gathering vital information to make a recommendation, local restaurant and bakery owners have expressed concern that health officials appear supportive of a total ban on trans fat.

The measure could potentially hurt smaller businesses that can’t afford alternative methods, says Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, adding that many area fast-food restaurants have already moved to eliminate trans fat voluntarily.

Roof recently served on a committee of health officials, small restaurant owners and food service suppliers to discuss either a ban, voluntary program or educational campaign. If the city forces local owners to eliminate trans fat, many restaurants would have to reformulate their recipes; the restaurant association, which represents over 300 eateries, is firmly against a mandate.

“We believe businesses are trying to accommodate their guests to the best of their ability, and that they’re already moving toward reducing the amounts of trans fat in their food,” she says. “I think that they should not put stringent guidelines on the businesses in our area. They should recognize we are voluntarily doing what the public would like done, and there should be no ban.”