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NYC restaurants may get reprieve on trans fat

/ Source: The Associated Press

Restaurants nervous about New York City's proposed trans fat ban could get a few breaks such as extended deadlines and other revisions when health officials vote on the measure next month, the city's top health official said Wednesday.

Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said the city has been sifting through hundreds of public comments — some from alarmed fast food chains and industry representatives — and is considering some changes to the proposal that would make New York the first U.S. city to outlaw the harmful man-made ingredient.

Frieden said officials are giving serious attention to complaints that the timeline is unrealistic, especially for national restaurant chains. The original proposal gives eateries six months to replace their cooking oils and shortening and 18 months to eliminate trans fats altogether.

Addressing an investor conference Wednesday, McDonald's Corp. CEO Jim Skinner touched on the difficulty in racing to replace trans fats. Four years after the company first pledged to significantly reduce trans fat levels in its fries, Skinner said the chain is making "very good progress" but still would not give a timetable for making the switch.

Skinner said McDonald's will be ready to comply if New York passes the ban in early December, but said "it's just taking a little bit of time" because the company does not want to risk anything when it comes to its famous french fries.

McDonald's has been quietly testing new oils in some U.S. restaurants but has avoided making a full switch like some of its competitors. Wendy's International Inc. introduced a zero-trans fat oil in August and Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC said Oct. 30 that it will stop using oil with trans fats by April.

For mammoth fast food chains, compliance with the ban not only means finding that perfect blend in the lab but also involves overhauling its supply processes and changing menus throughout the entire company, which is "kind of like turning around a large army," Frieden said.

"There are transition difficulties for some places and we're looking at a combination of timing issues, technical support issues and phasing issues that we think would help deal with that," he added.

Support does not mean monetary assistance, but could come in the form of help from consultants and other resources that would ease the transition, Frieden said. He declined to elaborate further on the revisions because they are still being hammered out for the vote before the New York City Board of Health.

Double damage of trans fats

Trans fats are typically found in partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, an ingredient for frying and baking that is also used in processed foods like cookies, doughnuts, pizza dough, taco shells and crackers. Trans fats also turn up in pre-made concoctions like pancake and hot chocolate mix.

The fats are believed to be unhealthy because they do double damage by raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol. It is because of that effect on good cholesterol that some experts consider trans fats to be worse than saturated fat.

While many health and medical associations are applauding New York City's move to ban trans fats, the American Heart Association has cautioned that a rushed timetable might cause restaurants to revert to unhealthy replacements like palm oil, which is high in saturated fat.

"The idea of reducing trans fat content is something we favor. Our only concern is the time plan for implementation — we just thought it wasn't very realistic," said Robert H. Eckel, the group's immediate past president.

A number of public comments also expressed concern about the supply of healthy alternatives, like corn, canola and soy oils. Frieden acknowledged it may be a valid concern if the ban sparks a nationwide trend, but said it's not an issue for New York City.

"I think it's OK if we're first on line," he said.