For decades, when Richard Katz prepared dough for pie crusts or turnovers – sitting at his baking station in the back of his Park Street storefront like a king on his throne – he has used a time-honored recipe.
It’s a recipe that has been handed down for generations and loved by customers for decades who have either walked around the corner or driven long distances to get a taste of the traditional.
However, come Jan. 1st, those recipes are going to be banned, and Katz said he is simply going to stop making many of his revered products.
The recipes are banned due to the fact that the City’s trans-fat ban will finally go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Trans-fats are typically found in lard or partially-hydrogenated oils and have come under fire nationally the last several years for being a key target in the war on obesity rates. The City and Mass General have led the fight locally, and intended to start the ban in 2012, but agreed to delay it in order to help small businesses get more time to find healthy alternatives.
Chelsea will join Boston and New York City as just a handful of municipalities that have enacted an outright ban on the use of such products.
Katz told the Record last week (as he fashioned bagels by hand) that he has been working with MGH to find alternatives for his recipes. He said the ban will not affect his staple bagel recipes, but will interfere with his pies, pie crusts, coffee cakes and turnovers – among other things. After a good deal of experimenting with suggested alternatives, Katz said he switched over completely to new recipes recently.
However, after immediate negative customer input, he abandoned the change and decided to simply throw in the towel.
“I experimented and then I made my products with the alternatives MGH suggested to me,” said Katz. “I began selling the new products and soon began getting complaints. Customers wanted to know why things were different. They told me there was a rancid aftertaste and that the turnovers weren’t as flaky as before. They were aggravated and I was aggravated. I got two or three complaints last week about the taste of my turnovers. That’s the first time that’s happened.
“So, I went back to trans-fats and got no complaints and so I’ll keep using trans-fats until Dec. 31st and then I’ll stop making those products forever,” he continued. “I will not sell an inferior product to my customers. I would rather just stop making it, and so that’s what I’ll do because I cannot find anything that sufficiently substitutes for trans-fats.”
Katz said he is also opposed to the nature of how the ban went into place, and suggested that banning an ingredient is somewhat heavy handed. While he agrees with promoting healthier lifestyles, he said it is more important to let people make choices and to have freedom of choice.
“I am opposed to this also from a philosophic point,” he said. “They’re coming in my bakery and telling me what I can and cannot use in my products. I’m here for my business, but I’m also interested in protecting my customers. I would have no problem putting up a sign to tell them what is in my products – even the dangers of those ingredients. We’ll put it up where everyone can see. But they’ve chosen to come in and dictate what can and cannot be done. People should still have a choice. If people don’t want it, they don’t have to buy it.”
City Health Director Luis Prado said that his department and MGH have worked long and hard on the ban, and they’ve tirelessly sought input from local restaurants and bakeries.
“His concerns are legitimate, but it is a little late in the game to raise such issues,” he said, noting that the new regulations begin in less than two months. “He’s the only person we’ve heard of that is upset. Most everybody has participated and many of the restaurants and bakeries participated in designing the regulations. The whole idea is to find substitutes for trans-fats because we all know they do contribute to higher cholesterol rates. It is something that is a very serious health problem.”
In fact, he said that the entire 2012 year has been devoted to holding meetings and helping businesses make the switch.
“Through all of 2012, the effort has been to work with these establishments and to discuss alternatives to trans-fats and that’s why the reguations were postponed for implementation until 2013,” he said.
Beyond the basic debate about the ban, Katz said there are some serious questions of fairness around the regulations. For example, large producers of products with trans-fats – such as large muffin producers, some of which operate in Chelsea – don’t have to eliminate trans-fats from their products. Under the regulations, they are allowed to continue using their recipes as long as they package each individual item and label it clearly with its ingredients.
Katz said such an inequity is a hit on the little guy like him, a little guy who is operating one of the city’s oldest continuing bakeries.
“One major problem I have is large companies that use trans-fats can keep using those products as long as they label the products with ingredients,” said Katz. “There are large bakeries in this city that will be allowed to use trans-fats under those circumstances, though I will not be able to. How does that affect the health of Chelsea and its residents? They sell a lot more items than I do. How can you say the large companies can use trans-fats and the little businesses cannot? It makes no sense, it’s not fair and I don’t even know if it’s Constitutional.”
As a result of that, Katz said he has consulted an attorney to see if it would be worth mounting a legal challenge against the ban due to the above-mentioned inequity.
“He has told me it will be expensive, and that may become an issue, but right now it is not an issue because we’re fighting for what’s fair and what’s right,” said Katz. “People should still have the ability to decide for themselves.”
Prado said the ability of large companies to continue using trans-fats has been discussed during the process, but he said they are even looking to make the change. He said that while they won’t be subject to the municipal ban, the trend is moving towards all food producers to change.
“That was discussed and even large producers are looking for a way of producing without trans-fats,” he said. “Products that are packaged have to establish contents and what is happening is they have a very small amount of trans-fats still because they are using some hydrogenated oils. Yes, they were considered, but this is a trend that soon everyone is going to move towards – that of eliminating trans-fats.”
“The purpose here is not to hurt businesses, but to help businesses come up with healthier ways to prepare their products,” concluded Prado.
Nevertheless, for Katz, the healthiest alternative for his business will be to just stop making some things rather than risk an excellent reputation that has taken generations to build.
“I’m just not going to sell my customers something that I know and they know is not as good as it once was,” said Katz.