TOPICS > Health

Chicago City Council Proposes Anti-Trans Fats Ordinance

August 16, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: This sizzling sound makes mouths water and, experts say, arteries clog. That’s because the food in this basket is being fried in oil that contains trans fats. Eating too much trans fat can cause heart disease, strokes and obesity.

That’s why Chicago Alderman Edward Burke wants to make it illegal for most restaurants to use cooking oils containing trans fats. If Burke’s ordinance passes, Chicago will become the first major city in the country to limit trans fats.

EDWARD BURKE, Alderman, Chicago: If the restaurants won’t voluntarily change their policy and adopt a healthy means of preparation, then I think that it’s clear that municipal government has the right to step in and legislate.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Trans fats are manmade by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. These hydrogenated vegetable oils are the oils most often in used in deep-fat frying. Hydrogenation also converts liquid vegetable oil to a semi-solid fat, making it much easier to use in cooking.

So fried foods aren’t the only food chockfull of trans fats. Cookies, crackers, cupcakes, doughnuts, just about anything that benefits from a longer shelf life usually contain trans fats.

This year, the Food and Drug Administration required all manufacturers to list the trans fat content of their products.

Nutritionist Bonnie Minsky.

BONNIE MINSKY, Nutritionist: How old do you think it is?


BONNIE MINSKY: Twenty-two years old. When we talk about trans fats, the cupcake is still intact. The plastic has totally fallen apart. So this is the problem: These things never, never die. They’re not real foods.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And it stays in your arteries that long, as well?

BONNIE MINSKY: Exactly. That’s the problem. It’s not just going in and going out; it staying where it shouldn’t be.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Minsky has been warning clients about the dangers of trans fats for years.

BONNIE MINSKY: The American Academy of Sciences has actually said that there is no safe level of trans fats. There’s even a safe level of arsenic. We can eat a certain amount of arsenic without being poisoned. There is no safe level of trans fats.

So Alderman Burke’s proposal could actually save thousands and thousands of lives and billions of dollars in dealing with heart disease in this country, because, once you get a big city like Chicago to ban something like this, you’ll see a lot of other big cities following suit.

Safe to consume?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Although most reviews of trans fats say people should eat as little as possible, the FDA still lists them as "generally regarded as safe."

Northwestern University preventative medicine Professor Linda van Horn thinks an outright ban would be premature.

LINDA VAN HORN, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine: I think that the proposal is well-meaning and well-intended, but the complexity of the issue requires very careful thought, both on the part of the medical science contributors, as well as the food industry, as well as the American public.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And Mayor Richard Daley says the government should keep its hands off people's food.

MAYOR RICHARD DALEY, Chicago: I mean, how far can government go? I mean, how far a city council should go? I think they should -- you know, let's talk about health. Let's talk about people working out. Let's talk about good eating habits, but not to start outlawing and telling every company what they should be doing. And if we start going in that direction, we'll all be eating carrots and tofu.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The trans fat issue was not the first time the Chicago City Council tried to mandate what's on restaurant menus. This spring, it had banned foie gras because the delicacy was made by force-feeding ducks and geese. That ban energized chefs like Michael Tsonton, who formed a group called Chicago Chefs for Choice.

MICHAEL TSONTON, Chicago chefs for Choice: We have a right to choose what we want to sell and what we want to serve on products that are legally prepared. I mean, I'm not serving Bengal tiger in my restaurant, but if I want to serve foie gras, I should be allowed to serve foie gras.

You can't legislate those choices. You know, you can legislate airbags, seatbelts, but trans fat? It's a tricky area. It's a tricky area.

Restaurant owners' plea

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But at the Palace Grill, owner George Lemperis says it would be hard to change the kind of vegetable oil he uses.

GEORGE LEMPERIS, Palace Grill Owner: My restaurant here is a diner. A diner is a hamburger and a plate of French fries. So it's very important. The price of non-trans-fatty oil is substantially more than the oils that we're allowed to use right now. I mean, are we going to charge people five dollars for an order of fresh fries? I mean, are people going to start paying that?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The pleas of small restaurant owners like Lemperis caused Alderman Burke to change his original proposal.

EDWARD BURKE: I'm prepared to step back and say only restaurants or franchisees of a restaurant that have gross revenue in excess of $20 million would be subject to this. That would take in KFC, Burger King, McDonald's, probably Arby's, et cetera.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The large chains say they are already aware of the dangers of trans fats. Wendy's will cut the amount of trans fats in its products by 95 percent by the end of August, according to Vice President Lori Estrada.

LORI ESTRADA, Wendy's: We began testing a new shortening nearly a year ago, and what we found, through multiple markets and various geographic areas, was that consumers couldn't really tell a difference with the new shortening compared to our old shortening.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But not all fast food restaurants have gone that route. KFC is being sued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to reduce or reveal its trans fat content, a lawsuit the company dismisses as frivolous.

And although McDonald's announced plans four years ago to switch to trans fat-free oil, it still hasn't happened. McDonald's would not talk on camera but released this statement: "Our test procedures in the U.S. are taking longer than anticipated. However, we continue to progress in our testing, and we are determined to get it right for our customers."

Alderman Burke says he will grill the CEOs of the major fast food chains at the next round of hearings in September.