A campaign by Los Angeles County to ban the use of trans fat in restaurants suffered a setback Friday when legal advisors said it lacked the authority to do so.
The county counsel told public health officials that neither a trans fat ban nor a requirement that restaurants display nutritional information on their menus would be possible under current state law. The state has jurisdiction in such matters.
The opinion surfaced Friday in a report by the Department of Public Health. The Board of Supervisors had asked the department for a study on ways to implement a trans fat ban.
In place of a ban, the report advised the board to start a voluntary program to encourage restaurants to eliminate the chemically modified food compound often used in baking and frying. One possibility might be to offer restaurants that choose to participate a decal certifying them as trans-fat-free, the report suggested.
"Because people are used to looking in restaurant windows to see the A, B, C grading, a lot of diners will appreciate restaurants who have made the extra effort to protect their cardiovascular health by eliminating trans fat," Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for the county, said in an interview Friday.
Trans fat is a semi-solid compound, created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils. Food manufacturers use it to enhance the texture of baked and fried foods, but the substance has also been linked to heart disease, which Fielding has called "the No. 1 killer in Los Angeles County."
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who is spearheading the campaign to ban trans fat, said she was supporting efforts by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) to pass legislation that would allow cities and counties some jurisdiction.
The report also cites several other bills pending in the Legislature that would regulate the use of trans fat in restaurants and schools, and calls on supervisors to support them.
A voluntary trans fat reduction program would be a step toward an eventual ban, Fielding said, raising awareness among consumers and pressuring businesses to change their practices.
The supervisors will move forward with voluntary measures and a campaign to educate the public about the health effects of trans fat, Burke said. But, barring a change in state law, whether to serve foods containing the substance will continue to be a restaurant operator's decision.
The supervisors expect to discuss the matter at their meeting Tuesday.
A campaign by the New York City Board of Health to persuade restaurants to cut trans fat was unsuccessful and led last month to the passage of the first ban of the substance in a major metropolitan area.
Calling a voluntary system "less than optimal," the county report also questions how effective it would be in reaching small businesses in low-income neighborhoods, which would be more "resistant to change."
A voluntary measure has the potential to make gains at high-end restaurants more sensitive to the healthfulness of their ingredients, while leaving behind low-income areas, which are most beset by heart disease, Fielding said.
"We certainly don't want to exacerbate any health disparities, and that's why we want this to be as broad as possible over time."