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The New York Times this morning reports that the New York City Board of Health has voted unanimously “to move forward with plans to prohibit the city’s 20,000 restaurants from serving food that contains more than a minute amount of artificial trans fats.”

While the board has the legal right to impose the limits on its own, it did not do so yesterday when approving the plan. Instead, it created a month-long period for public comment and then scheduled a final vote for December.

If the parameters of the ban remain consistent, “restaurants would be given until July to eliminate oils, margarines and shortening from the recipes that contain more than a half-gram of trans fat per serving,” according to the Times story. “They would also have until July 2008 to remove all menu items that exceed the new limit, including bread, cakes, chips and salad dressing. The only exclusions from the restrictions would be packaged food items, like candy, that remain in the manufacturers’ original packaging when served, as well as naturally occurring trans fats, which are found in some meats and dairy products.”

The NY Board of Health is made up entirely of appointees named by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made public health issues a major part of his approach to governing. public health. The city banned smoking in restaurants three years ago, before other cities made similar moves.

“Yesterday’s initiative appeared to ensure that the city would eventually take some formal action against artificial trans fats,” the Times writes. “If approved, the proposal voted on yesterday by the Board of Health would make New York the first large city in the country to strictly limit such fats in restaurants.”

Unlike Chicago, which is considering a similar prohibition affecting restaurants with less than $20 million in annual sales, the New York ban would affect every eating establishment in the city’s five boroughs – from five star restaurants to fast feeders to corner hot dog stands.

The restaurant industry was not thrilled. “I’m wondering if there are grounds for a lawsuit,” E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, tells the Times.

And the ban would seem to be bad news for chains like McDonald’s, which has long promised to find a healthier way to cook its French fries but so far has been unable or unwilling to deliver on that promise.
KC's View:
We were sort of amused by the mention in the Times story that “the regulations would be enforced by restaurant inspectors, who would examine kitchens for products with trans fat, but that there would be no attempt to test prepared foods.”

This is amusing since the city’s health inspectors are sort of famous for being open to various sorts of incentives when it comes to approving restaurants’ operations.

We thought it was instructive that, the pure-play online food retailer that focuses on fresh and prepared foods, yesterday announced that it was supporting the trans fat ban, noting that “to promote healthier eating and help combat heart disease, New York City’s leading cause of death, FreshDirect removed all hydrogenated oils from products produced in the company’s bakery, kitchen and catering departments in November of 2005.”

“FreshDirect is committed to providing high-quality, nutritious dining choices to its busy customers and stands wholeheartedly behind Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative,” said Steve Michaelson, president of FreshDirect. “Our customers have embraced the healthier recipes, and we’ve seen a steady increase in sales of our ready-to-cook and chef-prepared meal options since removing all artificial trans fats.”

This is a wave that retailers are smart to anticipate and ride.