No Trans-Fats in NYC:

The New York City Board of Health approved a ban on artificial trans-fats in local restaurants today. Other cities, such as Chicago, have considered such policies, but New York is the first city to adopt a complete ban. According to the NYT:

The new requirements will mean that the city's 20,000 food establishments, from high-end bistros to neighborhood delis, will be barred from using most frying oils containing artificial trans fats by July 1, 2007, and will have to eliminate the artificial trans fats from all of their foods by July 1, 2008. The establishments have to switch to oils, margarines and shortening that meet the limits and bring their menus into compliance.

The new rules, however, will allow restaurants to serve foods that come in the manufacturer's original packaging, even if they contain traces of trans fats.

The health department's new limits, which were advocated by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, will make New York the first large city in the country to strictly limit the chemically modified ingredients that were once considered a benign alternative to the saturated fats in butter.

The Times story also notes that when city health commissioner Thomas R. Frieden asked restaurants to voluntarily halt the use of trans-fats last year, approximately half did so.

UPDATE: At Concurring Opinions, Frank Pasquale raises the possibility of a "soft paternalism" alternative.

VFBVFB (mail):
I live in New York, but I would not have guessed that the New York City Board of Health had the statutory authority to decide to ban a particular category of food. I guess so.
12.5.2006 5:35pm
liberty (mail) (www):
The new rules, however, will allow restaurants to serve foods that come in the manufacturer's original packaging, even if they contain traces of trans fats.

Can you also breathe legally if you have recently been in close proximity with a fat person?
12.5.2006 5:40pm
Milhouse (www):
This is going to put a special strain on kosher establishments, which can't use butter with meat, or with anything that's going to be eaten at a meat meal.
12.5.2006 6:04pm
Mark H.:
Can you also breathe legally if you have recently been in close proximity with a fat person?

Only if you exhale into a charcoal filtered plastic bag and wait to empty it in New Jersey (for now).
12.5.2006 6:04pm
Timon Braun (mail) (www):
This is just the kick in the pants the pro-lard movement needs! Tourists to NY will once again taste potatoes fried in beef tallow and demand the same when they get back to Kentucky. Lard is the new sun-dried tomato.
12.5.2006 6:05pm
Timon Braun (mail) (www):
Schmalz, Milhouse.
12.5.2006 6:07pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
considering the NY City Council recently wrapped up a multi-session debate on dangerous softball bats, is any of this surprising?
12.5.2006 6:20pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Are there any (actual) religious freedom issues here?
Are there unintended consequences which will have adverse health impacts?
Have the people of the state of new york ceeded to the state authority over what they eat? If yes, are there any limits to what the state can regulate?
Does Lockner's bakery use transfats?
Can the state ban transfats in the home, or just in restaurants? between consenting adults in the bedroom?
This is one more data point in why its a good idea to resist voluntary government programs - they don't styay voluntary long. Does NYC have an IJ chapter?
12.5.2006 9:36pm
Richard A. (mail):
In defense of lard: It's actually much better for you than butter. Butter is largely saturated fat while lard has a mix of saturated with mono and poly.
Lard is probably healthier than trans-fats - and tastes better, too. Is there anything tastier than those potato chips cooked in lard? I mean other than pork roll, of course.
12.5.2006 11:36pm
Can anyone make a coherent argument in favor of this law? All I have heard so far is that since society will have to cover medical expenses in the future for many low-income people we should try to ensure that they are healthy. I'm not sure where that logic ends though.
12.6.2006 12:38am
Speaking the Obvious:
Next will come the commercials saying that if you buy trans-fats you are supporting the terrorists...
12.6.2006 1:45am
Speaking the Obvious:
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a free society...
12.6.2006 1:46am
Well I still buy lard in the grocery store. Makes the best pie crusts and you must have it for refried beans. Otherwise I use bacon drippings. Yea I live in the South and my food tastes better than cardboard. If I can not eat the food I want then what is life worth. This is as bad as some gripe about the .gov telling you what sex to have and with who. They almost got rid of light and ultra light cigarettes.I can not believe NYC residents have become whimps.
12.6.2006 2:49am
Well, hopefully lard will become available in Upper West Side supermarkets. My mother, who lived on the Upper East Side, used to go up to Spanish Harlem to find lard, but I, living on the Upper West Side, can't find it anywhere within a mile of my apartment. So I have to make pie crusts with shortening.

Who'd have thunk that lard was healthier than shortening? How many of the political ideas of my Upper West Side neighbors are as misguided as their preference for shortening? (Don't answer that!)
12.6.2006 8:28am
Joe Gator (mail):
RJT...I'm not even sure the covering medical expenses for the poor argument makes sense. Wouldn't it seem like obese people die off sooner, and that they will be less of a "drain on society" than someone who lives to a ripe old age?

I loved the South Park take on all these smoking bans..."who wants to live to be 90 anyway?"
12.6.2006 9:26am
Strom Thurmond (mail):
I've been expecting the war on the fat to make use of the greenhouse gases argument. A 300 lb fatty (think Al Gore) exhales hundreds of millions of liters more CO2 than a 90 lb Super Model over a 50 yr average adult lifespan. Those who run to stay trim aren't off the hook either, while not producing the amount of CO2 as those carrying around 50kg of fat, runners do make a significant contribution to global warming. During the course of an average brisk 1 hr run more CO2 will be exhaled than during 2 weeks of non running.
12.6.2006 10:07am

I'm not sure where that logic ends though.

Imagine a "Citizens' Government Healthcare Consortium" that is founded specifically to buy unasked-for health insurance for government executives, which then goes to court to force healthy lifestyles on them. The logic would end somewhere thereabouts.

The idea that government is "forced" to provide health care is simply false. Government-provided healthcare is just as voluntary an undertaking as the "CGHC" above would be.
12.6.2006 10:31am
Thales (mail) (www):
Trans fats are pretty much an unmitigated bad (not that I advocate banning them or other food paternalism), but as an instrumental matter if they really want to address obesity in a comprehensive way, why not, say, encourage not eating so many french fries or potato chips at all, regardless of the viscous medium in which they are cooked? Perhaps a sin tax on these goods--the consumers are probably more price sensitive than smokers, since there isn't much of an addiction factor here--that would encourage them to switch to healthier substitutes. How about vouchers for joining a gym (or a tax deduction for the expense of doing so)? As a measure to make people healthier, this one seems pretty marginal.
12.6.2006 10:39am
Some of the comments above confuse me. This isn't a ban on fatty foods in general. It is a ban on a particular artificial fat, one which scientists have concluded can create substantial harm to human health. In that sense, I think this is somewhat like the bans on asbestos or lead paint.
12.6.2006 10:41am
Joe7 (mail):
There is very little scientific evidence that trans-fat is harmful. All this hysteria is based on a few [very poorly done] studies that claim to show a low correlation between trans-fat and heart disease. Ironically, well done studies on low fat diets have found no such correlation.
12.6.2006 11:50am

I'm certainly not qualified to debate the science on its merits. But wasn't there a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine which concluded that there was strong evidence of a link between trans fats and cardiovascular disease?
12.6.2006 12:03pm
Russ (mail):
Chumund said:
"Some of the comments above confuse me. This isn't a ban on fatty foods in general. It is a ban on a particular artificial fat, one which scientists have concluded can create substantial harm to human health. In that sense, I think this is somewhat like the bans on asbestos or lead paint."

The difference is that no one is forcibly hooking you up to an IV and forcing trans-fats into you. The "harm" they create is a very voluntary one, done in the quest for better taste.

It likely does cause poorer health, but that should be MY choice, not the governments. And don't say that means we should legalize heroin or some such, b/c I don't see many fat people robbing liquor stores to pay for their french fry habit or driving impaired on a grease high.

Anyone see Demolition Man? NYC's ban seems one more step into Dr. Koktoe's society of "Salt is not good for you, and it has been deemed that anything not good for you is bad, hence illegal."
12.6.2006 2:01pm

I actually wouldn't be tempted to use heroin as an example. I'd more suggest something like FDA limits on mercury in fish.

And I think that fits your description: people typically ingest fish voluntarily, and typically they don't rob stores to pay for their fish habit.

So has the regulation of mercury levels in fish set us down the slippery slope to Demolition Man?
12.6.2006 2:19pm
Strom Thurmond (mail):
If they really wanted to be serious about banning all trans-fats NYC would have to ban milk and milk derived products. Theres not alot of trans-fats in cow milk but theres some. Try telling a cop there's not really much cocaine in a crack rock.
12.6.2006 2:27pm
Russ (mail):

If you could show me where mercury enhances the flavor of fish the way trans fat enhances the flavor of donuts, french fries, fried chicken, etc., you might have a point. But that's not the case. This is the government deciding that we must all eat healthier, whether we want to or not.

Perhaps making them disclose the amount of trans fat would be something to do, but banning it is a serious overreach of governmental authority and helps introduce the nanny state.

Or do you think you're not adult enough to decide on your own which foods you should eat and which you shouldn't?
12.6.2006 2:31pm

To be precise, it is a ban on artificial trans fat, and I believe the aforementioned article in the NEJM concluded that natural trans fat from dairy products did not pose a significant public health risk (although perhaps simply because the consumption levels were so low).
12.6.2006 2:35pm

Any time a fish has to be removed from the market because it contains an actionable level of mercury, presumably there are people who would have preferred the taste of that fish to the alternatives. Removing donuts with trans fat is the same thing--you can still get donuts, but maybe these alternatives will not taste as good to you.

Anyway, in pure theory I think the ideal would indeed simply be to provide consumers with all the available information about the food products they are considering and then let them make their own choices. But in practice, consumers don't want that. And for good reason--that would be an ungodly amount of information, and consumers don't want to have to deal with it when buying food.

So, what consumers have basically demanded--for good reason--is that the government do a lot of the work in determining which foods mean certain minimal health and safety standards. That way, consumers can just go out and buy food without having to do all that work for themselves.

To be sure, there is a middle ground: consumers don't want the government dictating the optimally-healthy diet and forcing everyone to eat only that diet. So, for food that falls above the minimal standards but below the optimal diet, consumers typically get exactly what you suggest: the relevant information about the food they are considering (e.g., the labels detailing the ingredients and the breakdown of contents (fat, sodium, and so on)).

So, the question is whether artificial trans fats deserve to be treated as below the minimal health and safety standards, or as one of the middle ground things. And I am not qualified to answer that question, but I do know that consumers want the government to be dealing with such questions so that they don't have to. And as noted, I think that is a reasonable thing for consumers to want.
12.6.2006 2:48pm
eric (mail):
I think the alternatives to mercury containing fish might not taste so good to you argument confusing. Mercury collects in fish over the lifetime of the fish. Smaller fish generally taste better or at least as good as larger fish of the same species. So unless a certain species is simply unavailable, there seems to be no problem.
12.6.2006 2:59pm

It wasn't a point specific to fish. Any time you remove a product from the market, presumably you are preventing someone from getting their first choice of products in that market (otherwise, the product wouldn't sell to anyone).

Perhaps Russ wants to make something of the fact that artificial trans fat may be causally linked to better taste (although I think primarily it is linked to easier transportation and storage). But I don't see how that changes his basic "nanny state" analysis: regardless of whether mercury is causally linked to the factors leading someone to buy the fish, the "nanny state" is telling the willing consumer he can't buy the fish because the mercury makes it unhealthy.
12.6.2006 3:22pm
Russ (mail):

The problem I have with your argument is that no one adds mercury to fish in order to specifically alter the taste. It is something that accumulates in fish over time. And, once again, can you name a single instance of someone requesting mercury filled fish voluntarily?

Trans fat, however, is added to many foods specifically to enhance the flavor. I know it's bad for me, but I also make the choice to eat it.

I also think your argument over consumers not wanting information is specious. Some might not want it, but the portayal of the average consumer being an idiot is media oversimplification. Everybody feels that everybody else is stupid, and only they are smart enough to recognize these things.

Consumers should be provided access to the information, but, of course, it can't be shoved down their throats. Still, it's available it people want it.

To me, this is yet another push towards folks saying, "You're too stupid to know what's good for you, and only I and my more enlightened friends understand, therefore we will decide for you."
12.6.2006 3:23pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
So, what consumers have basically demanded--for good reason--is that the government do a lot of the work in determining which foods mean certain minimal health and safety standards. That way, consumers can just go out and buy food without having to do all that work for themselves.
I've seen various activist groups complain. I've never seen "consumers" demand any of these things. Ralph Nader does not represent consumers. Neither does Michael Jacobson.
12.6.2006 3:29pm
OK, here is maybe an even better example.

The FDA also regulates artificial food dyes, banning the use of some dyes the food industry has used in the past.

Presumably food coloration is relevant to the consumer, so the banned products are causally linked to the factors consumers consider.

Personally, I'm not sure that added anything to the discussion, but there you go.
12.6.2006 3:29pm

I never said consumers were idiots, and nothing in what I wrote depends on such a claim. Rather, consumers are busy people, and they don't want to waste their time dealing with all the information that they would need to process. Moreover, that would largely be a wasteful multiplication of effort, as each individual consumer would have to perform their own analysis of the same information. So, this is a story about efficiency, not about idiocy.

In other words, the sentiment is not, "I am too stupid to decide, so you should decide for me." The sentiment rather is, "We're too busy getting on with our lives to deal with all that, so please take care of it for us."


The FDA and bodies like it are creations of representatives of the people. And for what it is worth, any government body dealing with consumer issues gets plenty of contact with actual concerned consumers, not just activist groups. Having had some small exposure to that world, I can assure you that there are plenty of consumers who do indeed want the government regulating the products they consumer, and who in fact can get quite mad when they think the government is falling down on the job.
12.6.2006 3:38pm
Russ (mail):
Excessive amounts of salt have been shown to raise cholesterol. Should there be a maximum salt standard?

Butter contributes to heart disease with no tangible benefit in health terms. Should we ban butter?

Sodas have so much sugar in them that too much usage can lead to hyperglycemia. Should we cap sugar?

We all know that baked foods like fish and chicken are much better for you than when they are fried. Should we ban frying?

We are delving into the absurd with all of our "health conscious" consumers. I thought the market was supposed to sort this out by providing healthier alternatives(I gagged the first time I saw salad at McDonalds). When did it become the government's responsibility?
12.6.2006 4:00pm
Russ (mail):
In other words, the sentiment is not, "I am too stupid to decide, so you should decide for me." The sentiment rather is, "We're too busy getting on with our lives to deal with all that, so please take care of it for us."

This is oversimplification based on media caricatures. No one I know wants something like that "taken care of for them." They'd rather decide for themselves.
12.6.2006 4:01pm

In answer to your first post, I think I already addressed that issue. I agree that consumers do not want to be compelled to have an optimal diet, so there exists a middle ground treatment for things like sodium, fats, and sugar.

In answer to your second post, I don't think I am presenting a "caricature" of American consumers--they really are pretty busy, and don't want to spend a lot of time making food buying decisions. In fact, I think you are still attacking the straw man (your suggestion that I was claiming Americans are idiots), and not dealing with the serious point (that Americans reasonably do not want to spend a lot of time analyzing the contents of their food in light of the available information).

For that matter, I doubt you are accurately describing the people you know, or even yourself. Bodies like the FDA deal with an ungodly amount of information about all the sorts of stuff that can find its way into food, and all the various health risks that can arise. If you actually had to deal with all that information yourself every time you went to a grocery store or restaurant, it would be completely overwhelming.

So, like everyone else, and whether you want to admit it or not, you are relying on the FDA and bodies like it to deal with many, many issues so that you do not have to do it yourself. And that doesn't make you an idiot--it would simply be incredibly inefficient to do it any other way.
12.6.2006 4:13pm
a54 (mail):
Isn't this ban on Transfats preempted by the FDA's jurisdiction to regulate food/drugs? Here we have a municipality attempting to use its police power to ban a food ingredient. How far will this public health argument carry weight?

Doesn't this also interfere with interstate commerce. Forcing manufacturers to develop a seperate formulation of foods for NYC?
12.6.2006 4:50pm
Strom Thurmond (mail):
You know theres this really toxic chemical substance that is served in restaurants world wide. Its so toxic its even used to sterilize the skin prior to surgery or drawing blood specimens. You can even get prosecuted if you ingest too much before driving or flying an airliner. Is New York going to ban this substance in addition to the transfats?
12.6.2006 5:12pm

The FDA does not generally have exclusive jurisdiction unless specified by statute, and food regulation occurs at the federal, state, and local level.

Under the Supreme Court's "dormant commerce clause" jurisprudence, state/local regulations which interfere with interstate commerce are subject to a fairly deferential balancing test, although sometimes the locality can lose (such as in Kassel v. Consolidated Freightways Corp., 450 U.S. 662 (1981)).
12.6.2006 5:17pm

I'd say consumers have made it clear that the substance to which you are referring cannot be effectively banned.

Of course, I'd say that about a lot of other drugs too.
12.6.2006 5:23pm
Russ (mail):
I agree that consumers do not want to be compelled to have an optimal diet, so there exists a middle ground treatment for things like sodium, fats, and sugar.

What's the middle ground? Who gets to decide how much is good versus how much is bad?

For that matter, I doubt you are accurately describing the people you know, or even yourself.

Wow, I'm sure glad you know my friends and I so well. Please tell me more about myself that I did not know. Can you please share your power to see others more accurately than they see themselves?
12.6.2006 5:32pm
Michael J:
What I find interesting about this discussion is that New York did not ban trans-fatty acids; they banned trans-fats from being served in restaurants. I think they would have a hard time banning trans-fats from being sold. And if the Board of Health can close down my local cafe because they wash their hands in the same sink as they wash their knives, why can't they regulate trans-fat?

Plus, no matter what some people here assert, the negative health benefits of trans-fats are well documented. At the very least they should not be served to children under 18.
12.6.2006 5:39pm

I described the middle ground above. Consumers do not want to be forced to have an optimal diet, and with certain common substances that can pose a health risk, the government follows the approach you actually sketched: it mandates information disclosure (e.g., food labelling), but doesn't ban the substances. But if you think about food labels as an example, it quickly becomes clear why you couldn't follow this approach for everything--there is a finite amount of information that can be conveyed by a label, and indeed a finite amount of information a consumer would want to process when making purchasing decisions.

And the "power" I have to understand consumers is based on common sense and just a little familiarity with food regulation. In fact, I urge you to go look at the FDA website, and see all the various matters that they deal with. Are you seriously claiming that you and your friends would prefer to be dealing with all of those matters yourself? I just find that claim to be incredible.

Indeed, take the issue I noted above, artificial food dyes. Would you really prefer to educate yourself about all the various substances that can be used as food dyes, keeping current with all of the medical literature relating to those substances, scrutinizing your foods to determine what dyes they have used, and coming to your own conclusions about whether each food does or does not contain an acceptable health risk associated with its food dyes?

And if you want to claim your answer to that question is "yes", then I can't stop you. But I don't have to believe you either.
12.6.2006 5:44pm
Eric Chad (mail) (www):
I was a biology major back in the days of my undergraduate education, and, based on my education from that ancient history, I find the fearmongering regarding trans fats to be be based on dubious evidence.

I try to explain the biochemistry a bit here.

I still think the problem is the paternalism here. While I disagree with all the smoking bans in general, at least there is a controversial argument that smoking in confined spaces hurts others. I'm not going to second hand fat anybody to death.
12.6.2006 5:47pm

I'm not qualified to debate the science, but let's consider a hypothetical. Suppose that scientists discover there is in fact a fairly strong link between a particular artificial food dye and a certain form of cancer. Would it be "paternalism" for the FDA to then ban use of that artificial food dye?
12.6.2006 5:54pm
Russ (mail):
And if you want to claim your answer to that question is "yes", then I can't stop you. But I don't have to believe you either.

I don't have to believe the sky is blue either. But the funny thing about truth is that it isn't subjective. Opinions are subjective, but facts aren't. BTW, you never explained your really cool mind reading device that allows you to know how I work. You should market that someday.

Eric Chad hit the nail on the head - paternalism. It should not be the government's job to decide what I can and can't eat. I won't be pumping trans fat into anybody else's bloodstream but my own, and that's my choice.
12.6.2006 5:56pm

You simply are not addressing my point. I understand your ideological commitments, but in practice, would you really want to be responsible for applying all of the available information about all of the various things that can be in food to every particular food decision you ever make?

Or just consider the one example I gave, artificial food dyes. Do you really want to be responsible for keeping current with the available information about artificial food dyes and applying it to all of your food decisions? Can you imagine what doing that would be like in, say, a restaurant?
12.6.2006 6:03pm

By the way, I think I should be clear that I am not doubting that you would like to make your own decisions about trans fat in particular, just as many people want to make their own decisions about sugar, or sodium, or so on. I just think this is a line-drawing problem: consumers cannot possibly be asked to do the work that would be necessary to make their own decisions about every possible thing that could be in their food, so the question becomes how to best divide the necessary labor between consumers and regulators.
12.6.2006 6:20pm
Eric Chad (mail) (www):

I believe the FDA could ban such a dye, but I think that is really another issue. I think the government could make it illegal to produce, sell, transport, or even consume trans fats. Actually, it may be reaching in such a case, but that's not really my issue here.

While I think the government absolutely could ban such a dye, I think it is something different completely to keep it legal, allow it's consumption, production, transportation, etc. by the general public and then say that it's illegal for certain businesses (but not all businesses) to sell it.
12.6.2006 6:35pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Some of you nutritional masterminds should read the Atkins books - it's the carbs and to some degree things like trans fats that cause the problem, not other fats. America actually weighed less when it was eating butter and eggs all over the place.

That doesn't mean I approve of the government micro-managing our diet, or any other aspect of our lives.
12.6.2006 11:10pm
Eric Chad (mail) (www):
Though we should all note, of course, that Dr. Atkins was obese and died of a heart attack.

I botched the link where I discuss the chemistry of trans fats above. Anyone who cares can view it here.
12.6.2006 11:48pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
That Atkins was overweight and died of a heart attack is certainly worth mentioning, but doesn't discredit his research and ideas. His books are loaded with citations to other research and once you see it all laid out it makes a lot of sense.
12.7.2006 5:02am

I understand a partial ban may have defects, although of course they can make practical sense (if, say, the vast majority of consumption of a certain substance was through a particular path, then the public health issue might be adequately addressed by cutting off just that one path).

What I don't understand is how any of this involves "paternalism". In particular, you originally pointed out that consumption of trans fat, unlike secondhand smoke, would not have direct adverse effects on third parties. Presumably the same would be true of consumption of our hypothetical carcinogenic dye. So, by your terms you now seem to be approving of "paternalism".
12.7.2006 7:23am
Eric Chad (mail) (www):

I see your argument. I think the paternalistic element here is that these trans fats are legal substances that we're told we can't be trusted to make dietary decisions regarding. I just woke up and my head's not making a lot of sense right now. If I come up with something better after I've had my caffeine, I'll come say it.
12.7.2006 9:28am