The New York City Board of Health voted unanimously Tuesday to prohibit restaurateurs from cooking with artificial trans fats, setting a precedent for public health agencies eager to take on unhealthy eating.
The city's 24,000 restaurants have six months to stop frying foods in oils that contain high levels of trans fats, which are believed to be a leading cause of heart disease. Within 18 months, they must switch to alternative ways of cooking pie crusts, doughnuts and other baked goods -- or face fines for each violation.
Though various local and state lawmakers have floated the idea of forcing trans fats from Americans' diets, New York's approach has been notably muscular, driven by an activist health commissioner, Thomas Frieden. City health officials say they tried to persuade restaurateurs to abandon the products voluntarily, but the effort failed.
"There is nothing like a deadline to focus the mind," Frieden said at a news conference after the vote. Answering critics, he said the health board was not "telling people what to eat."
"All of the food items will be available; they just won't have an artificial chemical in them that would increase your chance of heart attack, stroke or death," he said.
New York's ban marks a turning point for products that were introduced into the American diet in the early 1900s. Crisco was one of the first products made with a process called "hydrogenation," which solidifies liquid vegetable oil. Hydrogenated oils grew in popularity over the course of the century and were recommended as a healthier alternative to saturated fats such as butter.
The consensus began to shift in the late 1980s, when researchers found that trans fats lower the amount of LDL, or "good" blood cholesterol, and increase HDL, or "bad" cholesterol. The American Heart Assn. recommends a daily intake of no more than 2 to 2.5 grams of trans fats, less than a quarter of what is contained in an average fast-food meal.
In 2003, Denmark passed a law sharply limiting the use of trans fats, and the town of Tiburon, Calif., followed suit a year later. But elected officials in Chicago and New Jersey met with resistance -- and even ridicule -- when they proposed similar measures. Democratic state Sen. Ellen Karcher, who proposed the New Jersey measure in October, received such a wave of angry calls and letters that she temporarily closed her office.
"What happened in New Jersey was really out of control," she said. "We're talking about cooking oil here. People just blew it all out of proportion."
For advocates of a wider ban, Tuesday's vote in New York was wonderful news. The next city to ban trans fats "could be L.A., could be Seattle, could be Miami, could be Chicago," said Stephen Joseph, an attorney who spearheaded the Tiburon effort.
Restaurant industry representatives said they were deeply disappointed at the outcome. Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Assn., said the health department made only a token effort to educate business owners about trans fats in the first place.
The ban could force owners to raise prices or go out of business, Hunt said.
"The places that are going to be hurt are the small places, the mom-and-pop restaurant in Queens with four employees and 15 seats," Hunt said. "They're going to pay the highest price."
Hunt and others said they hoped to fight the ban through legislative or legal channels. Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Assn., said there were legal concerns about a municipal health agency banning a product that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, she said, the speed of the shift may force some restaurants to opt for oils high in saturated fat, which also poses health risks.
The board on Tuesday also approved a regulation requiring restaurants that distribute information about their meals' calorie contents -- generally large franchises-- to post it right on menus so that customers can see the number when they are ordering.
Frieden, who has been commissioner since 2002, has focused particular attention on eating habits. His department partnered with bodega owners to encourage people to drink low-fat milk, and has urged mothers to breast-feed as a guard against childhood obesity. He has said that chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity have taken the place of infectious diseases as the main public health concern.
The trans fat ban is an attempt to take on that challenge, said Lynne D. Richardson, a physician and member of the Board of Health.
"This is a new era. I think the New York City Department of Health and Thomas Frieden are pioneers in terms of the way they think about the responsibility to protect public health," she said. "It's really a new brand of public health activism."