When Joe Barbera, owner of AIDA Bistro and Wine Bar, began using nontrans-fat oils at his Columbia restaurant two years ago, he believed they were a healthier ingredient his customers would appreciate.
"The whole objective was to make freshly seasoned entrees and give people the option of less fat," Barbera said.
Howard County officials want other restaurant owners to follow Barbera's example.
On Monday, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Howard County Health Officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson announced a countywide promotion of healthy restaurants - the first phase of a multilayered approach in promoting and educating the county's residents about wellness and prevention activities to improve overall health.
Beilenson said the program is the first of its kind in Maryland.
For an establishment to be labeled a "healthy restaurant," it must curb trans fat, publicize the nutritional and caloric information of its foods, offer healthy alternatives and pass two food and hygiene health inspections. The restaurant must also be in compliance with the county's smoking ban.
"Do you really know if the restaurants are giving healthy alternatives? No, you don't," Beilenson said. "This makes it much easier for [customers] to do the right thing."
Barbera was one of the first restaurant owners to join the campaign.
"We need to be focused on what customers are looking for. The initiative to be healthy is what we have done, and it is something we think is important to the customer," Barbera said.
According to 2005 Howard County health statistics, the county ranks better than the state average in many health categories. But, 39 percent of the county's residents were overweight in comparison to the statewide average of 37 percent.
Rather than follow other jurisdictions, including New York City where the Board of Health voted in December to ban the use of trans fats by summer 2008, Beilenson said the voluntary approach would work.
He said it would be an "economic incentive" for restaurants to offer healthier food. He also said that if the county acted to ban all trans fats, a lengthy legislative process could delay the start of the initiative.
"We think this will be done much more quickly and effectively by encouraging [owners] to do the right thing," Beilenson said.
In the coming months, the county will move to other phases of the health initiative by focusing on schools, workplaces, homes and recreation.
The program is being praised by local health care officials as a way to raise awareness of good health and preventive care.
"It is a terrific initiative which is a good start and a very ambitious start. And if there is anywhere it can be done, it is Howard County," said Victor A. Broccolino, Howard County General Hospital president and chief executive officer. " ... To take this step puts Howard County well ahead of the rest of the nation."