SACRAMENTO — California became the first state to require restaurants to cook without artery-clogging trans fats, such as those in many oils and margarines, under restrictions signed into law Friday by the health-conscious governor.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a physical-fitness advocate and crusader against obesity, sided with legislators who said the measure would help get the fat out of Californians who are too dependent on fast food.
Trans fats can preserve flavor and add to the shelf life of foods but have been linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
The new law, http://97AB 97 by Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), requires restaurants to use oils, margarines and shortening with less than half a gram of trans fat per serving by Jan. 1, 2010, and applies the standard to deep-fried bakery goods by Jan. 1, 2011.
"California is a leader in promoting health and nutrition, and I am pleased to continue that tradition by being the first state in the nation to phase out trans fats," Schwarzenegger said. "Consuming trans fat is linked to coronary heart disease, and today we are taking a strong step toward creating a healthier future for California."
New York City has a similar ban, which began July 1 with a three-month grace period.
Those who violate the California law could face fines of $25 to $1,000.
The legislation was vigorously opposed by the California Restaurant Assn., which argued that it would not substantially affect public health because people eat 75% of their meals at home.
The decision on what restaurants use in cooking should be based on the desires of customers, not government officials, said association spokesman Daniel Conway.
Even so, he said, "given the fact that our industry is already phasing out trans fat in response to customers and that there is a delayed timeline for implementation, we are confident our members will be able to meet the mandate of the law."
Indeed, the law follows steps already taken by such institutions as McDonald's and Spago Beverly Hills to meet customer demand.
"I am completely in support of it," chef and Spago owner Wolfgang Puck said in an e-mail. "My companies stopped using trans fats years ago."
The fats can be found in vegetable shortenings, margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Carl's Jr. chain plans to stop cooking with trans fats by the beginning of the year, said company spokeswoman Beth Mansfield.
"We saw where the industry was going," she said.
Other chains that have fully or partly eliminated trans fat or had previously committed to doing so include Wendy's, El Pollo Loco, Mimis Cafe, KFC, Burger King, IHOP, Applebee's, Starbucks, Subway, Taco Bell, Denny's, Panera Bread, Red Lobster and the Olive Garden, according to the restaurant association.
The group said ethnic restaurants and bakeries would be hardest hit by the ban, because many ethnic dishes are more difficult to prepare with trans fat-free substitutes.
Rod White, the owner of Bertha's Soul Food in Los Angeles, estimated that it would cost him $30 more a week to buy cooking oil without trans fat, and he was angry.
"The government is infringing too much on the rights of people to even eat what they want," he said. "Are they going to outlaw salt next because it causes hypertension?"
Compliance will be checked by state health inspectors on their periodic restaurant visits.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia and an expert on environmental regulations, predicted that if the ban works smoothly, other states will consider similar steps.
"California is always the leader in these kinds of laws," he said.
Scientific studies have established that trans fats increase so-called bad cholesterol in the body and decrease good cholesterol, contributing to the buildup of plaque in arteries, according to Dr. P.K. Shah, director of cardiology at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.
"This law will address the health issue of cardiovascular disease, which is the No. 1 killer in the nation and the state of California," Shah said.
Eliminating artificial trans fats from the food supply could prevent 6% to 19% of heart attacks and related deaths each year, according to an estimate published by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The new regulations could mean real savings, not only in lives but also in health costs, according to Mendoza.
"This has always been about the health of our citizens," he said.
Mendoza's legislation was supported by such health organizations as the American Heart Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Everybody agrees there are health benefits in getting rid of trans fat," said Michael Jacobson, the center's executive director. "It is causing several thousand deaths each year."
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Getting with the program
Many restaurants have already begun eliminating trans fats or have previously committed to doing so. According to the California Restaurant Assn., they include:
* T.G.I. Friday's
* Burger King
* Johnny Rockets
* The Cheesecake Factory
* Walt Disney Co. (theme park restaurants)
* Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver)
* Darden (Olive Garden & Red Lobster)
* Panera Bread
* Carl's Jr.
Trans fat-free restaurants that have also signed up
for L.A. County's Voluntary Trans Fat Reduction Program, according
to the association, are:
* California Pizza Kitchen
* Heung Nam Myun
* Little Sheep
* Poquito Mas
* Warner Bros. Studios
* Yojie Shabu