Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The D.C. Health Department will closely monitor a New York City health initiative that would significantly restrict the amount of artificial trans fats in the city’s restaurants.

“New York’s idea and policy is sound. Limiting trans fats in one’s diet would have multiple positive effects on health, given its effects on increasing LDL cholesterol and decreasing HDL cholesterol,” said Health Department spokeswoman Leila Abrar. “The District of Columbia Department of Health has no similar plans at this time but is studying the issue and the New York City program.”

Too much LDL cholesterol, often called bad cholesterol, can cause heart attacks or heart disease. On the other hand, HDL cholesterol is thought to protect against heart attacks.

The New York City Board of Health unanimously voted to move ahead with a proposal last week that would require the city’s restaurants to limit the amount of trans fats to half a gram in every menu item by 2008. The board, which has the authority to adopt the proposal without the City Council’s approval, is taking public comments before a final vote in December.

Proposed regulations from the D.C. Health Department must get final approval from the City Council.

Although only Chicago has proposed a similar ban on trans fats, 13 states, the District and Puerto Rico have introduced legislation to put nutritional information, including trans fats, on restaurant menus.

This would not be the first time the District has followed New York City’s lead on health issues. After a citywide ban on smoking in New York City restaurants and bars in 2003, the District earlier this year passed a similar ban that will take effect in bars and nightclubs in January and already exists for restaurant dining areas.

Trans fats are made through a hydrogenation process that turns liquid oils into solid fats. They give foods such a pastries a longer shelf life and are also found in deep-fried foods, snack chips and cookies. The Food and Drug Administration began requiring companies this year to include the amount of trans fats on food nutrition labels.

The American Heart Association recommends that Americans get no more than 1 percent of their calories from trans fats, about 2 grams a day. A large order of McDonald’s french fries contains about 8 grams of trans fats.

In the District, legislation introduced by council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, would require restaurants with 10 or more locations nationally to disclose trans-fat and calorie information to consumers.

Virginia and Maryland have no legislation or county-level proposals similar to the New York City proposal or Mr. Mendelson’s bill.

Mr. Mendelson said the New York proposal will help his bill, which has been slowed by the restaurant lobby.

“The Restaurant Association is opposed to giving consumers information. The result of their argument makes some people hesitant, so when another jurisdiction decides to implement disclosure, that’s going to help,” Mr. Mendelson said.

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington is opposed to Mr. Mendelson’s bill, said group President Lynne Breaux.

“Representatives from major restaurant groups said they would not come into the District if this happens,” she said.

Mr. Mendelson’s bill is not scheduled to be voted on during this legislative session.

The legal basis for a restriction on trans fats is giving local health officials in Virginia pause.

“We have no plans in Fairfax County to restrict the use of trans-fatty acids in restaurants because they are legal ingredients, so finding legal grounds to support such action would be difficult,” said Kimberly Cordero, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Health Department. “People can purchase and consume products containing trans fats outside of restaurants, so the overall impact to public health would be difficult to assess.”

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