Restaurants Left out of Stories on Trans Fat Ban

     “New York, New York is getting ready to lead the nation in evicting a killer from restaurants,” teased Katie Couric at the intro to the “Evening News.”


     The CBS anchor’s take on a proposed trans fat ban was the most dramatic of the September 27 evening newscasts, but CBS reporter Sharyn Alfonsi delivered the most balanced story among the three networks.


     Network news portrayed a proposed New York City ban on trans fats in the Big Apple’s restaurants as a public health coup akin to stamping out secondhand smoke. Only CBS aired a restaurant industry spokesman and mentioned the high-dollar fine proposed for restaurants in violation of the new law.


     NBC’s “Nightly News” presented the most biased story, with reporter Robert Bazell leaving out any critics of the proposed ban. What’s more, Bazell presented the ban as harmless to the bottom line for dining establishments in the city.


     While “Some restaurant owners are considering a lawsuit to stop the new regulations,” Bazell quickly added that “others like Junior’s in New York’s Times Square have already eliminated most of the trans fat on the menu.” The NBC science correspondent then included a sound bite from that restaurant’s manager, suggesting to viewers that restaurant owners are ready for a mandated switch in cooking oils and that customers wouldn’t notice the difference.


     Unlike NBC, ABC’s Bill Weir did acknowledge criticism of the ban, but only scratched the surface of a common complaint against a group pushing the ban.


     “I remember when they were telling us to switch from butter to margarine because they said it was healthy,” said Walter Olson of the Manhattan Institute. That was the only sound bite critical of the ban in Weir’s story. Weir didn’t ask which “they” Olson meant and didn’t look into the agenda of interest groups that have pushed for the ban.


     One such liberal advocacy group that calls for banning trans fats, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), once promoted trans fat-bearing cooking oils as an alternative to oils high in saturated fat.


     CSPI called the ban “bold” in a September 26 press release, and executive director Michael Jacobson said that “It makes perfectly good sense for health authorities to set limits” on the fat. What’s more, CSPI took partial credit for the health department’s proposal, saying CSPI “has been urging cities, states, and the federal government” to ban trans fats and force restaurants to put calorie counts on menu boards.


     Nutritionist Mary Enig slammed CSPI for pushing fast food companies to adopt partially hydrogenated cooking oils in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “In 1988, CSPI published a booklet called Saturated Fat Attack, which defended trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and called for pejorative labeling of ‘saturated’ fats,” Enig wrote in an article entitled “The Tragic Legacy of Center for Science in the Public Interest.” “The booklet contained a section called ‘Biochemistry 101,’ which claimed that only tropical oils were dangerous when hydrogenated.”


     Enig went on to blast CSPI’s advocacy of partially hydrogenated oils, charging that “Thanks to CSPI, healthy traditional fats have almost completely disappeared from the food supply, replaced by manufactured trans fats known to cause many diseases.”


     But aside from the healthfulness or lack thereof, another issue remains that the media downplayed: consumer choice.


    None of the three networks posed tough questions on-camera to health department spokesmen about the regulatory costs of the proposed ban.


     What’s more, only CBS’s Sharyn Alfonsi aired a sound bite from a representative of New York’s restaurant industry. Alfonsi also mentioned, at the close of her “Evening News” story, the high cost of noncompliance with the proposed fat ban.


     “Restaurants that serve pizza or chips that are too fatty could be slapped with a $2,000 fine,” she noted, before taking a closing swipe at government paternalism.


     “Some restaurant owners say their customers want to eat like 9-year-olds, they just don't want to be treated like one.”


     The Business & Media Institute has previously reported on how the networks serve as deputy to the food police, including CSPI.