After a failed attempt to ban trans fat in Los Angeles-area restaurants, city and county officials reached an agreement Tuesday with the local chapter of the California Restaurant Assn. to voluntarily phase out the substance within 18 months.
But because the association has only a few thousand members out of more than 34,000 restaurants in the county, it is unclear how far-reaching the deal will be.
Under the agreement, Los Angeles County will most likely provide restaurants that are certified as trans-fat free with window decals, officials said at a City Hall news conference.
"Trans fats are bad for us, and they can and should be eliminated from our food," said Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who last month sponsored a motion to study the feasibility of banning trans fat in the city.
City and county officials scrapped plans for a ban after legal advisors said Friday that only the state has the authority to restrict trans fat.
"We will be using incentives and education rather than the heavy hammer of an ordinance," Huizar said.
County supervisors voted Tuesday to work out the details of the voluntary measure and to push for state legislation restricting trans fat and requiring calorie and nutritional labeling at restaurants.
They also joined the City Council in calling for restrictions on the substance anywhere that food is served in county and city office buildings.
Trans fat is most commonly found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and margarine. Food manufacturers use it to enhance the texture of baked and fried foods. Research has shown that it raises "bad" cholesterol, lowers "good" cholesterol and increases the risk for heart disease.
A similar voluntary 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 by a major city of all but tiny amounts of trans fat.
Andrew Casana, director of local government affairs for the California Restaurant Assn., applauded the voluntary phaseout plan.
"The industry is moving away from trans fat regardless of what happens. There is no advantage to go back to it."
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for L.A. County, was quick to point out that the agreement does not require restaurants to reduce their total fat content, nor would it combat obesity directly. "This really needs to be the beginning of a dialogue with consumers about how to reduce fat overall," Fielding said.