The latest battle of the bulge has moved to Annapolis.
Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat, has introduced a bill that would ban the use of most artificial trans fat in restaurant cooking.
The legislation, which mirrors a fat-busting measure adopted last month in New York City, would force corporations such as McDonald's as well as mom-and-pop operations and corner delis to stop using margarine, shortening or any kind of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils when preparing food. Those ingredients raise cholesterol levels, have been linked to heart disease and contribute to obesity.
"From a public health standpoint, I thought this was the right thing to do," Hubbard said. "All those kids out there who are eating french fries and other fried foods; they're starting to clog their arteries at a young age."
An anti-trans fat movement has been sweeping the nation nearly a century after Crisco shortening, which became synonymous with the unhealthy fat, hit the market. Trans fats are created when liquid oil undergoes a process called partial hydrogenation; the resulting fat stays solid at room temperature. Several chain restaurants - including Au Bon Pain, KFC and Wendy's - have decided to reduce trans fat in their foods, using a healthier oil instead. Even Crisco now offers Zero Trans Fat Shortening.
But an outright ban is likely to be met with strong opposition. Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said food-service companies want to adopt healthier practices but that a mandate could strain supplies of other oils or lead to the use of oils high in saturated fat, which also increases the risk of coronary problems.
"We're opposed to this bill because it's a mandate, but we are not opposed to reducing our use of trans fats in certain products," Thompson said. "It's something that we must do voluntarily while considering the issues of supply, price, and quality and taste of the end product."
Thompson said his trade group has been working with the Baltimore Health Department to educate restaurant owners about trans fat and plans to duplicate that effort statewide.
Legislators in at least 16 states and Puerto Rico have proposed legislation requiring that restaurants list the trans-fat content and other nutritional information for menu items, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But no state has approved a ban on trans fat in foods. The New York ban was imposed by the city's Board of Health.
Hubbard's bill would exempt products with less than a half-gram of trans fat per serving and does not apply to food served directly to patrons in the manufacturer's original sealed package. First-time violators would face a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail, and restaurants could lose their operating license for more than two offenses.
The fate of a ban in Maryland is unclear. Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Health and Government Operations Committee, said yesterday that he had not reviewed the legislation.
Hubbard, chairman of the public health subcommittee, said his bill would receive a hearing in the House.
A similar bill has not been filed in the Senate.
"I don't usually stick my finger up to see which way the wind is blowing," Hubbard said, explaining that he has not asked fellow legislators if they would support his bill. "If I think this is the correct thing to do, I'll do it, and I'll take my lumps."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said that he also hasn't taken a close look at the legislation. But he said the bill has "started a dialogue on an issue that is being debated around the country."
"If it passes," he added, "I'll lose 15 pounds."
Ted Levitt, owner of Chick & Ruth's Delly, an Annapolis landmark near the State House that is frequented by legislators, said he's against a trans-fat ban on principle. Nonetheless, he said he has begun to eliminate the bad fat from his menu, first in salad dressings and later this year in the deep-fat fryer.
"You've got to be responsible for yourself, and if you're eating french fries every day, you're going to get sick," Levitt said. "So I think it's wrong to have a mandate. ... But if they do it, I have no problem with it."