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The War on Trans Fats

There have been a series of developments in the ongoing battle to curb trans fats:

In August 2006, Wendy’s, the nation’s No. 3 fast-food chain, switched to a new blend of corn and soy oil for french fries and breaded chicken items in its US and Canadian restaurants. The switch makes Wendy’s the first national hamburger chain to use nonhydrogenated oil. According to Wendy’s, the move reduces the trans fat in its french fries to just zero to 0.5 grams, depending on serving size, while all breaded chicken products have been reduced to zero grams of trans fat.

In October, Kentucky Fried Chicken announced that it is planning to switch to trans fat free cooking oil in all of its US restaurants. The conversion is expected to be completed by April 2007. While trans fat will be eliminated from chicken and other fried products, it will remain in biscuits and other menu items because no good alternative has been found. Officials at KFC, a subsidiary of Yum Brands, said the change in cooking oil will have no impact on the taste of its food. In June 2006, the Center for Science in the Public Interest had sued KFC, seeking to force the restaurant chain to quit using partially hydrogenated oils. The group withdrew its suit after KFC’s announcement. The Center noted that KFC’s announcement could put pressure on other fast food restaurants to eliminate trans fats from cooking oil. The suit is still being pursued by a plaintiff’s law firm.

In November, McDonald’s Corporation announced that it would begin to use cooking oil with lower levels of trans fat in its European restaurants by mid-2008. The company estimates that the resultant reduction of trans fat levels in its food will be 0.5 gram per serving, a level that would qualify it for free of trans fat in the USA. According to McDonald’s CEO, the fast-food chain is making “good progress” towards developing a healthier oil for French fries in its US restaurants; however, he wouldn’t give a timetable for the switch.

Finally, on December 5, 2006 the New York City Board of Health voted to ban the use of trans fats in the city’s restaurants. According to the ban, restaurants will have until July 2007 to replace their cooking oils and shortenings; by July 2008 they must eliminate trans fats altogether. The ban contains some exceptions; for instance, it would allow restaurants to serve foods containing trans fats which come in the manufacturer’s original packaging. While many applaud NYC’s trans fat ban, there have been complaints in the restaurant industry, particularly from national chains, that the Board’s timeline is unrealistic and that the ban itself is burdensome and unnecessary. Furthermore, the American Heart Association cautions that restaurants may resort to using unhealthy replacements for trans fat such as palm oil in an effort to meet the deadline. Nevertheless, a city-wide ban on trans fats appear to be the wave of the future: Chicago, for example, is also considering a trans fats ban.