CBS Downplays Danger from Activist Health Commissioner

CBS Downplays Danger from Activist Health Commissioner
Regulatory suggestion to limit trans-fats in New York foods results in serving of poor journalism.

By Dan Gainor
August 12, 2005

     The medias latest assault on the so-called obesity crisis delved into New York Citys asking thousands of restaurants to stop serving foods made with trans fats, as CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer put it on Aug. 11. But when an activist government asks, how long will that stay a request?

     New Yorks action followed an ongoing campaign against trans fats by various food industry opponents, especially the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to CBS reporter Elizabeth Kaledin, if the health commissioner's plan works, New York will be the first major city to get trans fats off the menu. Kaledin didnt explain that the commissioners plan affects 20,000 restaurants and 14,000 supermarkets and food suppliers.

     The only way to get 34,000 businesses to do what they were asked will eventually be mandatory regulation. Especially since, according to the Aug. 11 New York Times, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden is one of the citys most activist public health commissioners in a generation. And thats the Times saying most activist, not conservatives. That didnt stop ABCs Bob Woodruff on the Aug. 11 World News Tonight saying, It's just a suggestion. And today, some New Yorkers said they will take it under advisement.

He are some other questions the media coverage didnt address:

    How bad is trans fat?: According to Kaledin, Even the name sounds toxic. Oddly enough, even the anti-food industry CSPI doesnt entirely agree. The group has a Web site entitled that includes information about its crusade. The question and answer section contains this question: So should I avoid every molecule of trans fat? Based on the New York plan, the answer is Not necessarily. Trans fat is not a toxin that will kill everyone who eats even a tiny amount. It's worth avoiding foods in which partially hydrogenated oil is one of the first few ingredients on the label, but not worth worrying about if partially hydrogenated oil is down near the end of the ingredient list. (Ingredients are listed in order of predominance.)
    What really is affected? According to the N.Y. health department, its a pretty sweeping list: Commercial vegetable oils used by restaurants for cooking, frying, and baking often contain trans fat, as do many margarines, shortening, and pre-fried foods, baked goods and snack foods.
    How much will it cost? If you believe the health department, it wont cost a thing. The press release that was sent out along with the request included three quotes from restaurant owners and chefs, including Arthur Gregory, owner of A & M Roadhouse in lower Manhattan. Weve been cooking with trans fat free oils in our kitchen for many years. Food prepared with trans fat-free oil tastes just as good, has a cleaner fresher taste and doesn't cost any more, said Gregory. News reports disagreed, but made no mention of the health departments claim. Kaledin said the switch to soybean oil was Twice the price. And the Times Marc Santora wrote that trans fats can be hard to replace without raising costs or changing the taste of familiar food like cookies and French fries. None of the reporting raised the question of what impact such price hikes would have on the restaurant industry.
    Who will make the decision on what to eat? Kaledin claimed, We have educated consumers and they're going to drive the restaurants to change Thats not what the health department vowed in its letter. Consumers want healthier choices when eating out and will be asking for trans fat free options, said the release. But options werent what the commissioners office was seeking. The health department followed that line with three ways to To clear your kitchen of trans fat.
    What does business have to say? From watching CBS, youd never know. Rather than talk to unhappy business owners, Kaledin relied on Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Medical Center. In a HealthDay News article from April 12, Heller complained about limited health care funding. The government allots its funds to other places not a whole lot into public education and health," she said. The CBS story also quoted a restaurant owner in favor of the move, but didnt include any opponents. To know more about what restaurants think, why not ask the National Restaurant Association? According to a statement on their Web site, The Association believes that positive nutrition messages and education, rather than blame and mandates, are better suited to the promotion of healthy lifestyles.