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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Statewide trans-fat ban gains key supporters
By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff
Massachusetts would become the first state to order restaurants to remove trans fat, a staple of frying oils and baked goods that has been linked to heart disease in humans and to diabetes and obesity in animal studies.
New York City approved a similar ban last year, a move that has inspired campaigns across the nation to consider similar regulations. The ban took effect last week amid little complaint.
A prohibition here would represent one of the most sweeping public-health initiatives in the state since smoking was banned from restaurants and bars in 2004. The tobacco rule faced ferocious opposition for more than a decade, most notably from the 5,500-member Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which argued initially that it would hurt business.
But today, Restaurant Association President Peter G. Christie told lawmakers that a statewide trans-fat ban would be preferable to a patchwork of local regulations. In May, Brookline became the first town in Massachusetts to embrace a trans-fat ban, although restaurants have until November of next year to comply. Boston and Cambridge have also considered bans.
"If it's decided that we need to take these things out of our foods in restaurants for health interests, we'll be willing to work with you," Christie told the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Health.
Christie said he has "tremendous respect" for the state Department of Public Health, and if the agency says that trans fats are "bad and we have to get rid of them from our restaurants, the question would only be how and when."
The Department of Public Health, backed by research from Harvard and elsewhere, strongly supports reducing trans fat in diets. Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach championed a trans-fat ban in Boston where he was the top health official before moving to the state office this spring.
"We know that trans fats are harmful, significantly increasing the risk of heart disease," Auerbach said in a statement today. "Innovative approaches are needed to both educate the public about the dangers and to reduce the availability of foods with trans-fat content."
The Restaurant Association's stance sends such a powerful signal about the prospects for a statewide law that Boston now will probably wait to see what happens in the Legislature before pursuing a city ban, said Barbara Ferrer, who succeeded Auerbach as executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.
"It's very encouraging to hear that the Restaurant Association is agreeing not to oppose a statewide ban," Ferrer said. "It says to me there's a fair amount of agreement that trans fats are not healthy, don't belong in the food, and the restaurant industry is taking a progressive position."
Ultimately, the ban's fate in the Legislature will hinge on the opinions of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray, neither of whom would commit to a position today. The ban was proposed by State Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat, who is House chairman of the public health committee.
In one sure sign that trans-fat bans are winning widespread acceptance, the most vocal support at today's hearing came from two restaurant owners.
John Donohue, owner of Donohue's Bar and Grill in Watertown, told the committee that he decided in November to remove trans fat from all of his dishes, including french fries and chicken fingers, switching to a healthier brew of frying oil.
Artificial trans fat had become a fixture of restaurant kitchens because it costs less, extends the shelf life of some baked goods and improves the texture of others.
Restaurateurs report that cooking with other oils has been less challenging than they expected, and that while they may pay more for healthier oils, they expect prices to drop as more cafes make the switch.
State Representative Alice K. Wolf, vice chairwoman of the committee, described the push to eliminate trans fat as "a train that's left the station.
"I'm very struck by the health data about how serious the health impacts are," said Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat. "It's not so cool to fight against public health measures if you have good data behind them."
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a Harvard School of Public Health cardiologist and epidemiologist, detailed the health dangers of trans fat for the lawmakers, explaining how the artificial form raises the bad kind of cholesterol and lowers the good kind, something no other kind of fat does.
Research conducted at Harvard has shown how trans fat hurts the heart and increases the chances of suffering cardiovascular disease. Scientists estimate that having as little as 40 calories of trans fat a day can boost the risk of a heart attack by 23 percent.
A typical fast-food meal of chicken nuggets and french fries, if it's prepared in artificial trans fat, can easily contain more than 100 calories of the substance, Mozaffarian said.
Primate studies have also shown consuming trans fat can elevate the risk of a condition that is a precursor to diabetes and pack dangerous fat around the belly, the Harvard researcher said.
Trans fat, he said, "has no nutritional benefit, it has great potential for harm, and it can be easily replaced."