By MEGAN HARTLEY, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - A Maryland legislator wants to make sure you have a healthy meal when you go out to eat - whether you like it or not.
But a hearing in the House Health and Government Operations Committee Tuesday brought stiff opposition from restaurant owners who oppose a bill that would bar their establishments from serving meals cooked with trans fats - found in products like vegetable shortening and hard margarine.
Although restaurants "110 percent agree" with the negative affects of trans fat, according to Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, they draw the line at legislation that would ban the fats all together.
"We are market driven. As the market makes more opportunities (for trans fat) available we will change. The same way we changed from lard to trans fats in the 1980s, we did not need legislation then and we do not need it now," said Thompson.
Del. James W. Hubbard, D-Prince Georges, the sponsor of the bill, said Marylanders are dying every day from the effects of trans fat.
"I'm a firm believer in public health," said Hubbard. "The more we wait the more people are going to be sick and have their arteries clogged."
Trans fats are made when manufacturers turn vegetable oils into solid fats through the use of hydrogen. They are commonly found in pastries and fried foods. According to the Food and Drug Administration trans fats raise bad cholesterol, which in turn causes coronary heart disease. More than 500,000 Americans die from this disease each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The bill allows establishments to sell pre-packaged foods with labels identifying their trans fat content. However, it prohibits restaurants from preparing any foods with ingredients containing more than a half gram per serving of trans fat for customers. A restaurant must keep on-site all the manufacturer labels for ingredients used in their products.
The legislation does not threaten a fine or to revoke a restaurants license, only to post its name on the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's website until a violation is corrected.
According to Thompson, small businesses such as bakeries would suffer most under the bill. They do not have the resources to purchase the trans fat alternatives that are monopolized by large chains such as McDonald's, he said.
"Bakers say to me, 'If they mandate this, I'm going to turn to butter,'" said Thompson. Butter is not only high in saturated fat, but is more expensive then shortening.
Richard McClure, general manager of Carroll's Creek Cafe in Annapolis told the committee that the bill is not fair because it targets only restaurants, not manufacturers and grocery stores.
"I can sell a muffin in my restaurant that comes pre-wrapped with a label that has trans fat, but I cannot sell one of my own," said McClure.
Hubbard pointed out to the committee that many restaurants are already "ahead of the curve." McDonald's and the Silver Diner are both examples of restaurants offering trans fat free foods.
Hubbard also pointed out that he had heard on the radio that morning that Krispy Kreme will soon offer trans fat free doughnuts. Before the hearing Thompson joked he would bring in Krispy Kreme doughnuts and pass them out to the delegates. In December the New York City Board of Health mandated that all restaurants in the city remove artificial trans fats from their foods for an 18 - month period starting July 1. A violation would potentially cause a restaurant in New York City anywhere from $200 to $2000.