First of all, New York, let’s take a deep breath. Good? Good.
A little oxygen does wonders to clear the head, which raises questions about the air supply at the city Health Department. Its proposal to eradicate all artificial trans fats from every restaurant in the city is nothing short of hysterical.
No, trans fats aren’t anyone’s idea of health food. But in a city where anyone waiting for the train can play “Spot the Rat” – and win three times out of four – it seems like City Hall might have its priorities out of order. The dangers caused by trans fat are a far cry from those of, say, E. coli in spinach.
For one thing, we’ve been eating trans fats for decades. The Harvard School of Public Health reports that the amount of trans fat in the average American’s diet has not changed since the 1960s. Since that time, our life expectancy has grown – but so have our irrational fears.
Bottom line: Trans fat isn’t healthy, but that doesn’t make it nearly the danger some say it is.
What’s especially frustrating about the proposed mandate is that it subjects the restaurant industry to a terrible case of regulatory whiplash. In the early ’90s, when the nutrition activists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups started clamoring against saturated fats, restaurants moved on their own to provide offerings containing, for instance, less butter. In many cases, that meant turning to trans fats as an alternative – because those very same activists encouraged their use while dismissing the health risk. As CSPI’s Bonnie Liebman wrote in 1990: “The Bottom Line … Trans, shmans.”
Restaurants aren’t very good at anticipating the unpredictable demands of activists or political appointees – most of whom would never set foot in any establishment as déclassé as the kind that might serve fried foods – but they’re very good at satisfying the demands of paying customers.
If they can declare New York City a trans fat-free nanny state by bureaucratic fiat, what can’t Commissioner Thomas Frieden and his minions ban? Throwing out all the ice cream in the city might lengthen a few people’s lives, too. But New Yorkers probably wouldn’t appreciate it.
And with this new regulatory push, the iron fist in the latex glove is grasping for more than just control over the fat content of foods. The Health Department is also preparing to require that restaurants put nutrition information front and center on menus and menu boards, whether customers want it there or not. The cruel irony is that the proposal only applies to restaurants that already offer nutrition information on their own.
The lesson we’re learning is that no good deed goes unpunished. Restaurants nagged by self-proclaimed health advocates to usher in trans fats 15 years ago are now being forced by big government to abandon them. And restaurants that already go beyond what the law requires and offer nutrition information get, well, more regulation.
Maybe the radical solution is to let consumers – not bureaucrats – dictate what restaurants do. After all, you know what they call a restaurant that doesn’t believe that the customer is always right? Bankrupt.
Richard Berman, a native of the Bronx, is executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.