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Are San Diego Eateries Ready to Digest a Ban on Trans Fats?

California cities would be making a mistake if they decided to take a cue from New York City and ban the use of artificial trans fat laden oils, shortening and spreads in restaurants, according to the head of the California Restaurant Association.

“Given all the issues cities face today, we think they ought not be in the business of regulating what people can and cannot eat in restaurants,” said Jot Condie, voicing the Sacramento-based trade group’s stance on whether similar proposals should follow in-state.

On the face of it, the Big Apple’s ruling also circumvents the power of the federal Food and Drug Administration, he added.

“The FDA has approved it (artificial trans fats) in restaurants, so what the city of New York is trying to do is pretend that the FDA is not qualified to do its job,” Condie said.

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Here, here, said Carl Winston, director of San Diego State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program.

“There’s a lot of consternation about legislators trying to legislate healthiness in the restaurant industry,” Winston said. “But if there was a dime in it, restaurants would already be doing it.

“If people wanted to eat really healthy food when they dine out, restaurants would have really healthy foods on their menus. But when people go out, they’re looking for taste. They like to eat steak and french fries and they love fried chicken. It’s not consumers who are pushing for this, it’s consumer groups.”

The yogurt and fruit cups offered by such fast-food chains as McDonald’s Corp. and San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc. are far less in demand than their french fries, Winston pointed out.


Going On The Trans Fat Wagon

Tom Christensen, a spokesman for San Diego County’s Department of Health and Human Services, said he didn’t know of any push on the local front that would result in banning trans fat oils in restaurants.

“It’s not an issue that’s been raised,” Christensen said.

However, some chains, both locally based and national, are taking the initiative.

Jack in the Box is researching the use of trans-fat-free oils for its fried fare.

“We haven’t yet made a final decision,” said Jack in the Box spokeswoman Kathleen Finn.

Locally based Pat & Oscar’s, a chain that has locations throughout Southern California, eliminated the use of products containing trans fats in June.

Wendy’s International Inc. began using a zero-trans-fat oil in late summer, and Yum Brands Inc.’s KFC and Taco Bell have indicated that they intend to follow suit. McDonald’s is experimenting with some alternative oil blends, and has announced it would be ready for the New York City ban, but has not committed to a systemwide switch.

Well-known local restaurateur Ingrid Croce said her longtime downtown fixture, Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar, stopped using products containing trans fats a few years ago, and she applauds New York City’s Dec. 5 ruling.

“We never use products with trans fats. We stopped when we became aware that it was bad for you. I think New York has set an excellent standard,” Croce said. “It’s a great start in the right direction for a healthier country.”


An Expensive Proposition

Since trans-fat-free oils cost about three times as much as those containing trans fats, however, Croce said she expects that the local restaurant industry would balk at being forced to buy the more expensive alternatives. She also said she believes the local industry would resist further government regulation.

Because margarine gained popularity decades ago when it was thought to be a healthy alternative to cooking with butter or lard, which contain animal fats that are also linked to heart disease, Condie questions “this whole fervor and debate behind trans fats.”

The alternatives currently on the market could actually be worse for consumers, he said.

Winston agreed. “I’m interested in seeing what kind of oils and spreads the New York restaurants go to and whether they’re ultimately determined to be more or less healthy,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jack in the Box provides health and nutritional information about menu items on its Web site and in brochures available at its restaurants.

But legislation that would require restaurants to provide nutritional breakdowns akin to that of prepared foods on grocers’ shelves would open a can of worms, Condie said.

“A laundry list of the nutritional content of menu items would result in menus that are 50 pages long,” he said. “Most restaurants are nimble in what they serve and change menu items on a regular basis. So to ensure that they are providing the public with accurate information, they’d need to have nutritionists on staff to test every teaspoon of ingredients. Then the trial lawyers looking to make a buck would have a case if they find any variations.”

Under New York City’s new ruling , the first of its kind in the nation , eateries will be prohibited from using most frying oils containing artificial trans fats in July, and by July 2008, they will have to cut them from all foods. Nevertheless, they will be allowed to serve foods that come in the manufacturer’s original packaging.

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