A Baltimore City councilwoman plans to introduce legislation next week to ban trans fats in restaurants, a controversial proposal that supporters argue would reduce the incidence of heart disease.
The bill, sponsored by city Councilwoman Agnes Welch, follows trans fat bans enacted in Philadelphia, New York and Montgomery County and is likely to spark debate here between health advocates and restaurateurs.
Any product containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil - such as shortening or margarine - would be prohibited by the legislation. The ban would apply to any establishment where food is prepared for sale, including restaurants, deli counters and fast-food chains.
"We're going to try to make our children a little healthier in this city," said Welch, who added that the legislation is tied to a recent task force report she commissioned on childhood obesity. "We were elected to protect people's health and welfare."
The legislation, which will be assigned to the council's committee on public safety and health for a hearing, comes less than a year after the council wrestled with and ultimately approved a smoking ban. The city legislation prompted the approval of a statewide ban, which takes effect Friday.
Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said many of his members do not oppose eliminating trans fats, but he suggested the city should wait for a statewide task force to study the issue before moving forward with a ban. A bill to create a task force is pending in the General Assembly.
Thompson said it is relatively easy for restaurants to buy healthier fryer oil - many have done so voluntarily - but it can be more difficult to find prepared foods from suppliers, such as pie shells, cakes and other baked goods, that do not contain trans fats. Thompson noted that Montgomery County gave restaurants several years to phase in the ban.
"Our problem is not that we want to continue using trans fats. Our problem is we have a lot of baked goods, and until [suppliers] are able to reformulate the products our hands are tied," said Thompson, noting that he has not read the city's proposal. "We're hoping that city officials in Baltimore will understand some of the challenges the industry faces."
A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said the administration is reviewing the bill. The city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, said he has not yet read the bill and that he is unsure whether he would support it. He noted that the Health Department has encouraged restaurants to voluntarily reduce their reliance on trans fats.
"The movement to minimize the consumption of trans fats will save lives," he said. "What, exactly, to do now in Baltimore is an excellent question."
It is not clear how much support the legislation will have on the City Council, but City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that she applauds the legislation.
"The obesity crisis can be likened to an oncoming natural disaster for our children that, in this case, is 100 percent preventable," Rawlings-Blake said in the statement. "This legislation will begin that path of prevention in Baltimore City."
Unlike the smoking ban - which was approved in February with nine votes in the 15-member council - bans on trans fats have not evoked the same kind of visceral debate in other cities where they have been enacted.
Duchy Trachtenberg, an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council, was the chief sponsor of legislation there. She said the ban, portions of which took effect this month, has been well received by both business owners and the public.
"It's really not as big a step as many people portray it to be," said Trachtenberg, a Democrat. "I believe in three or four years this is going to become common practice."
Trans fats, often found in oils used for fast food and packaged snacks, can clog arteries and lead to heart disease. Studies blame the fats for as many as 50,000 fatal heart attacks a year.
The American Heart Association recommends that people limit trans fats to less than 1 percent of their daily calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that's just 2 grams of trans fats, or less than is contained in one doughnut.