Cutting the (trans) fat: Health policy-making in action

Trans fats, typically found in partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), have been used in foods because of their unique ability to remain solid at relatively high temperatures. These properties keep food tasting fresher longer, but they also make it harder for our bodies to metabolize them, and that poses serious health risks.

But, unlike other hazardous materials, you can’t spot a trans fat just by looking at it with the naked eye. So how has King County been able to enforce this ban? And how did it get developed and implemented in the first place?

Nutrition label featuring trans fats via
Nutrition label featuring trans fats via

The road to banning trans fats
In 2007, the Board of Health identified obesity as a primary focus. It had become evident that trans fats were contributing to poor health outcomes in our community. New York City, Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Maryland, had just banned trans fats in restaurants, and Board of Health members wanted to explore what a rule like this would look like in our region.

The committee
After a briefing on the subject, the Board Chair formed an ad hoc Advisory Committee on nutrition to present the Board with policy options.  The committee was composed of city leaders, councilmembers, representatives from health organizations, the Director and Health Officer of Public Health, and representatives from the restaurant industry. They held three meetings over the course of three months and received feedback from the Board of Health after those meetings.

The vote
The Board of Health voted on the policy on July 19, 2007. Approval was relatively uncomplicated, but implementation required coordination with many stakeholders to make sure the policy was both fair and feasible.

The road to implementation
One of the major obstacles to implementation was making sure the restaurant industry had safe alternatives to trans fats. At this point in time, viable alternatives were relatively new to the market, and restaurateurs were concerned that they would not be able to comply in accordance with the roll-out plan. The Ad Hoc Committee worked closely with the restaurant industry and alternative product suppliers to create a plan that was feasible for all parties, including a two-phase approach to compliance.

Restaurant inspectors underwent substantial training. A line item for trans fats was added to the official inspection sheets. Restaurants inspectors check original ingredient labels, confirming a lack of trans fats.

In reality, you probably haven’t noticed a change in the flavor or texture of your food. But all of this behind-the-scenes public health work isn’t for naught – transitioning away from trans fats to healthier fats and oils is expected to prevent 30,000 to 100,000 premature deaths each year in the United States. Public Health is proud to have been a leader in this important shift in food safety policy.