Buffalo restaurants would be banned from using trans fats under a law that will be proposed this week by the city's newest Common Council member.
Eating establishments that use artificial fats are harming people's health, Demone A. Smith of the Masten District said Tuesday as lawmakers met with a group that is lobbying for the ban.
"It's like eating plastic," Smith said of trans fats, which are partially hydrogenated fats.
The local move comes a month after New York City approved a first-in-the-nation ban on artificial fats in restaurants. Last week, an assemblyman from Brooklyn introduced a bill that would outlaw trans fat products in chain restaurants throughout the state.
Local advocates said they envision a ban in Buffalo applying to restaurants of all sizes, even small takeout establishments.
But a restaurant coalition that represents 7,000 outlets statewide urged Buffalo officials to reject such restrictions.
Gretchen Fisher of the New York State Restaurant Association said customers should be allowed to decide for themselves where they eat.
"We really hate to see consumer choice being regulated. It's a slippery slope," she said
Fisher added that it's unfair to target one arena in which trans fat products are sold.
"If there are serious dangers to consumers, why are we looking at just one industry?" she asked. "You still have all the packaged food."
In fact, advocates of a local ban on artificial fats don't hide their desire to eventually expand restrictions to supermarkets and other food stores that sell packaged goods that contain trans fats.
Abdul Halim Muhammad of the Local Action Committee of the Millions More Movement thinks a broader ban would be warranted up the road.
"It would be a wonderful thing," he said. "But our focus [now] is a bit narrower."
While the Council's attorney said he must still research the issue, he doesn't think there's anything that would block the city from passing such a law.
But enforcing it could be problematic, said Assistant Corporation Counsel Peter Savage III. He said that Erie County is responsible for dealing with health codes and said it would be important for the city to work closely with the county.
"[A ban] doesn't do any good if it's not enforced," Savage said.
Muhammad disputed claims that banning trans fats would drive up restaurants' costs or make food less tasty. He said his group has done extensive research and is convinced there are affordable oils that are more healthy.
"The consumers won't know the difference, but their bodies will," Muhammad told the Legislation Committee.
Ban supporters said there is growing evidence that trans fats cause health problems, including an increased risk of coronary disease.
Smith, a former Erie County legislator who was appointed to an empty Council seat last week, said he plans to file his bill by Thursday. The full Council will review the plan next week, but the issue will likely be discussed at committee meetings before final action is taken.
The proposed ban comes as some restaurant chains are already taking steps to eliminate or reduce artificial fats. Kentucky Fried Chicken recently announced that by spring, it will stop frying its Colonel Sanders chicken in trans fats. Burger King also announced plans to begin testing trans fat-free cooking.
"Voluntary is good," said Fisher, who is the membership director of the statewide restaurant group. "But unless it is of the utmost consequence for safety, the consumer should make the decision on where he or she wants to eat."