Zero is going to have to wait.
The absolute zero ban of trans-fats in Chelsea – the first absolute zero ban in the country – will not go into effect administratively on Jan. 1st as expected, as City Manager Jay Ash said this week he will not enforce the ban.
The move is being hailed by some local business owners as a bit of common sense in a very muddled situation – a situation that has been reported by the Record and was also recently the subject of a Fox 25 television undercover investigative report.
Ash said on Monday the trans-fat ban adopted by the Board of Health last year, and scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1st, would not be enforced by City inspectors, at least not initially.
“There are several outstanding issues that need to be addressed, and it will take some additional time to address them,” said Ash, noting that the Board of Health regulation has conflicts with state and local laws and rules that still needed to be ironed out.
Ash, who was not a proponent of the eventual ban the Board of Health adopted, said he is seeking a meeting with the Board of Health to discuss the next steps that the City will take on the ban.
“I support the federal approach to trans-fats, which allows for trace amounts to still be included in what is considered a zero trans-fat product,” said Ash. “Numerous other, progressive cities have adopted that approach, and the food industry has been able to adjust to that emerging trend.
“However, our Board of Health has gone further on trans-fats, and has banned all trans-fats produced from partially hydrogenated ingredients, meaning that even what is considered to be a zero trans-fat ingredient by the federal government may not be allowed here in Chelsea,” Ash continued. “I need to understand this more, see that it is creating a fair system for our restaurants and bakeries to compete with and survive the competition from other communities, and ensure that we can enforce what is adopted as consistent with state and our own local laws.”
Local baker Richard Katz – of Katz Bagels – applauded the move.
“I applaud what the City Manager has done for small businesses to stay in business,” said Katz, who had previously said he would stop making several popular items (including Apple turnovers and pie crusts) on Jan. 1st rather than switch to a zero trans-fat ingredient. “This ban went to the extreme and it’s too stringent. I’m very happy about it. I still say everything in moderation. They should have never passed the law and if they could rescind it, they should.”
Officials from Mass General – who have been instrumental in advocating for and implementing the ban – were not immediately available for comment on this story.
Ash acknowledged that the Board of Health is empowered by State law to regulate health matters independent of what he believes is right or wrong.
“I appoint board members who are then expected to act in what they believe is the best interest of the community,” he said. “I certainly appreciate that the Board of Health is concerned with the effects that trans-fats have on local residents. Based upon the calls and visits I’ve been getting, though, it is not clear to me that restaurants can comply with the absolute ban, and its not clear to me that the community as a whole is looking for a local ordinance that exceeds the federal law,” commented Ash.
Ash said numerous local restaurants have said that the ban is unfair, both because they cannot come up with ingredients that are absolutely free of trans-fats and because wholesalers and supermarkets retailing products are not held to the same strict standard.
“I’ve had several cases where I’m being told that more than half of the products on the restaurants menu would need to be eliminated,” said Ash. “I don’t think that was the Board of Health’s intention, at least I hope it wasn’t, so I’ll look forward to meeting with the Board to discuss this further.”
Additionally, the Fox 25 report featured several Chelsea restaurants that believed they were in compliance, but learned from the reporter that they were not, as their alternative ingredients actually had trace amounts of trans-fats.
The regulation adopted by the Board of Health does include an appeal process and waiver of the ban, a point that Ash believes signals the Board of Health wants to be reasonable in the ban.
“But we need to have a discussion, and that’s what I’ll be looking for,” said Ash.