Justice, Health, and the Trans Fat Ban

By Kimberly-Elizabeth Johnson

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New York City’s artificial trans fat ordinance offers a rich social history of public engagement with local politics for the support of community values, particularly justice and health.

“… human life is much more important than shelf life…” Dr. Lynne Richardson, NYC Board of Health[1]

Proposed by the health department in September 2006 and fully implemented by 2008, the ordinance attended to a gap in the 2006 federal labeling policy which neglected artificial trans fats in food service establishments. Section 81.08 of the New York City Health Code restricted the serving of trans fats to 0.5 gm per serving unless the food came with a package and label. By 2006, trans fat, an added fat with long shelf life, was fairly ubiquitous in snacks, fried and baked goods, convenience and fast foods, and was implicated in heart disease and other health concerns. New York’s ground-breaking policy had national significance and was implemented with strong support from the public and consumer and health advocates.

Before the proposal, citizens across the country were already engaged in food politics. Consumers read scientific media about the dangers of trans fat, scrutinized labels and boycotted products with the ingredient, educated friends and family, and organized communities with material about the health risks. Tiburon, California imposed a voluntary trans fat ban in restaurants in 2004. And there were multiple lawsuits against companies for serving the fat to the public. Its health dangers were targeted on television shows by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey as early as 1998.[2] By the time New York’s policy emerged, consumers understood the politics behind the science and health issue as, in part, tied to the industry’s economic interests.[3]

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The Health Department received a great deal of testimony from local consumers in support of the policy. One consumer from New York sent in a comment, saying, "I want to live forever -— don't you?" Sam Barbieri, chef and owner of Waterfront Alehouse in Manhattan and Brooklyn, thought the policy good for the health of his customers, made changes to his menu early on, and took time to educate friends and family about the risks. Shannon Copeland, a consumer from Georgia, emailed in favor of the restriction and urged the department “not to give up”. Written comments combined with oral testimony from the public, totaled 2,266 in favor of the proposal with only 74 in opposition.[4] To put the volume of public response into perspective, the 2003 federal proposal to add trans fat to labels numbered 1,720.[5]

Health and consumer advocates joined consumers in support of the ordinance. The public hearing on October 30, 2006 was packed and testimony ran two hours over schedule. The informal nature of the coalition supporting the restriction was apparent in the many who came to offer testimony: national consumer advocate Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest; local health advocate Florence M. Rice, President of the Harlem Consumer Education Counsel; Joel Berg, Executive Director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger; State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz; Walter Willett and Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health...

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Testimony was, moreover, colorful and impassioned. City Councilman Peter Vallone criticized the federal government for not taking care of the issue, and stated that it was up New York to lead the way: to “refuse to let our bodies be dumping grounds for companies looking to make profits.”[6] Fern Gale Estrow, a dietitian who consulted for low-income communities, used the dumping ground metaphor as well. Sal Fischera, a consumer, described the policy as promoting “the freedom to avoid toxic substances that don’t belong in food.”[7] Dr. Elena Rios of the National Hispanic Medical Association said the policy would address health disparities in Hispanic communities and Dr. Paul Kligfield, President of the New York Chapter of the American College of Cardiology, concurred, arguing that the policy was important because of the “dependence of children and working New Yorkers on commercially available food products during their daily life.”[8] Students testified in favor of the proposal as well.

The Board of Health voted unanimously to pass the restriction.

Many later reflected that the policy supported community values, justice and health. Native-born civil rights activist David Jones, President of the Community Service Society of New York, argued that people in impoverished communities had “limited options and limited transportation access” and “the fact that [some food service establishments] were essentially using trans fats when there were other alternatives easily available for only pennies more” was unjust. Another consumer described the policy as putting “people over products.” Dr. Mary Bassett, then Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, thought the policy a matter of social justice as well: “leveling the playing field for people who were contending with market forces without any counter balances or government protection.” An anonymous representative from a child advocacy organization said the policy could “impact millions of people in a city almost immediately” by targeting issues of risk disparity in the “food retail infrastructure.”

Still, the restriction was also criticized for inhibiting consumer liberties and overburdening city emergency food-relief systems. Audrey Silk, founder of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, thought the policy represented “the encroachment of the nanny state” and was “finally going too far.”[9] Aine Duggan, representing the Food Bank of New York City, supported the policy but was concerned that pantries and soup kitchens were not in a position to refuse food, and that foods rich in trans fats would be “dumped” into the emergency food-relief system. Ira Gershenhorn, a consumer, offered another nuanced position: he did not think the health department should be regulating at the consumer end, but rather that food additives like trans fats should never enter the food supply.

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But Stephen Joseph, an attorney who had sued Kraft and McDonald’s for their use of the fat and was part of the Tiburon trans fat ban, countered that for people dining out, “there’s no label, there’s no freedom of choice.” David Jones likewise talked of a “triple-play negative”: being young and poor, with low access to education, employment, and nutritious foods led to “long term health disasters” in places like Brownsville or Bedford Stuyvesant. He thought the argument about consumer choice just “another form of fraud… when these youngsters are really denied choice at every end.”

The historical significance of the ordinance arguably lay as much with the consumer protection as with meaningful public engagement and the emerging focus on issues in the national food system. The restriction increased transparency and choice for consumers dining out, particularly in communities with high health risks. It held economic and political interests accountable for supplying nutritious foods, and highlighted the growing national concern for food-related chronic diseases. And it ultimately influenced policy in other localities; most significantly, the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal in 2013 to remove trans fat from the “Generally Recognized as Safe” list.

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Kimberly-Elizabeth Johnson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition at the West Chester University of Pennsylvania.


[1] T. Lueck, “New York City Plans Limits on Restaurants' Use of Trans Fats,” New York Times, September 27, 2006.

[2] P. LeDraoulec, “Trans Fats R.I.P.: Thanks to Wendy's New Policy, These Fries Aren't so Bad for You After All,” Daily News, July 26, 2006, p. 49.

[3] Kimberly-Elizabeth Johnson, “A Social History of the New York City Trans Fat Policy,” PhD dissertation, Syracuse University, 2014. Retrievable at http://surface.syr.edu/etd/136.

[4] L. Silver and S. Angell, Results of Public Hearing and Comments Received Regarding Amendment 81 of the New York City Health Code adding a new Section 81.08 to limit the use of artificial trans fat in NYC food service establishments (FSEs), (New York: The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2006).

[5] D. Schleifer, “Categories Count: Trans Fat Labeling as a Technique of Corporate Governance,” Social Studies of Science, 43, no. 1 (2013): 54-77.

[6] Trans Fat and Calorie Labeling Proposals Health Codes 81.08 and 81.50 (New York: The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2006), 16-19.

[7] Id., 173

[8] Id., 179.

[9] Id., 94.