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WASHINGTON - The National Restaurant Association and the National Council of Chain Restaurants were among the groups that filed comments with the New York Board of Health earlier this week about its proposals to amend the New York City Health Code to ban trans fat in restaurants and require caloric statements be provided on restaurant menus.
Both Washington-based groups emphasized that for now, restaurants should be able to make such moves on a voluntary basis.
"The National Restaurant Association and the nation's 925,000 restaurant-and-foodservice locations have long been committed to promoting nutrition and healthy lifestyles," said Sheila Cohn Weiss, a registered dietitian and the director of nutrition policy at the National Restaurant Association. She warned against hasty actions such as the ban, citing previous half-baked attempts to control the public diet that substituted one problem fat for another.
In the early 70s and 80s, Weiss said, there was a dramatic shift away from saturated fats in response to scientific community and consumer concerns about cardiovascular disease.
"In our haste to move away from saturates, industry replaced one fat with another," she said. "We must learn from history. In our hurry to replace trans, we must ensure that we are not simply returning to the palm oils and other saturates, but find healthier, sustainable alternatives."
Weiss added that the food industry -- including restaurants -- continues to work on product formulations to reduce trans fat levels in food items. "At this time, however, we believe that it is not appropriate to require a ban on trans fats served in our restaurants," she said.
Weiss said that instead, the city of New York should focus on the "larger health picture at hand," and "work to educate its citizens and business communities on the important aspects of leading a healthy lifestyle."
In its comments, NRA cited the case of Denmark's removal of artificial trans fat by limiting industrially produced trans fat content in food to 2 percent of total calories from fat.
"We don't believe the solution for New York City is to follow Denmark's lead, where foodservice companies have simply substituted palm oil for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. We believe that it is important that we find better, longer-term solutions and ensure that we are all fully informed about the science behind them," said Weiss.
Jack Whipple, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, took issue with both the timing and the necessity of a trans fat ban in New York.
"[Restaurants] have been making great strides over the past few decades to alter their menu offerings in response to consumers' growing interest in diet and health," Whipple said. "In fact, many members have embraced plans to reformulate their trans fat-containing products, and already some have had success. We expect further innovation and progress will rise, but the proposal's timeframes are unrealistic and will inflict substantial unintended costs."
Whipple also noted that the demand for trans-fat-free oil currently exceeds the supply. "It will take years of working with producers, processors, and suppliers to create sufficient quantities of trans-fat-free oils that the entire industry can use," he said.
NCCR also addressed the proposal to amend the New York Health Code to require that certain restaurants provide prominent caloric statements on menus. At the outset, NCCR has contended that the proposal would unfairly discriminate against the chain restaurant industry.
"The department acknowledges that the proposal is intended to reach approximately 10 percent of the city's restaurants, particularly those that are 'high-volume' establishments," said Whipple in the statement. "There is no reason to view the calories consumed at this 10 percent of restaurants any differently from the calories consumed at the remaining 90 percent of restaurants. A calorie is a calorie. The answer is not to impose costly, unworkable requirements on all restaurants. At the same time there is not justification for singling out chain restaurants for disparate treatment."