NEW YORK – Leave the gun, remake the cannolis? Days after city health officials proposed outlawing trans fats in eateries, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the ban and tried to drag Robert De Niro into the debate because the actor's restaurants do not use the harmful man-made oil.
De Niro, an owner and investor in several culinary hotspots, went to City Hall on Thursday for a news conference related to his Tribeca Film Festival but stayed for the mayor's general briefing with the press, at which Bloomberg was asked about the health department's trans fats ban.
The proposal is raising questions about whether the government should be playing head chef, causing restaurants and bakeries citywide to consider makeovers for the Big Apple's favorite treats.
Confessing his own love for french fries and oily popcorn, the mayor insisted that everyone can still enjoy those snacks because they can be made without the artificial trans fatty acids, which are thought to cause cholesterol problems and increase risk of heart disease.
Experts say corn, canola and soy oils are safer but generally taste and cost the same as the trans fats.
"You're getting an ingredient out that nobody's going to miss," Bloomberg said.
With De Niro standing behind him, the mayor pointed out that many food makers already have eliminated trans fats on their own, following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's requirement this year that ingredient labels show trans fat content. Companies including Frito-Lay and Kraft have reconfigured recipes for many of their most popular packaged goods, including Doritos and Oreos, replacing the trans fats, which are typically listed as partially hydrogenated oil.
Many restaurants have done the same. The example was already set by some city eateries that never used artificial oils in the first place, such as De Niro's Nobu and Tribeca Grill.
"If you look at some of the best restaurants in this city, including Robert De Niro's, they do not use trans fats because they don't need them in their food and there's no reason to have them," Bloomberg said.
De Niro, who starred in the "Godfather" trilogy, which made famous the line about fried Italian pastries, appeared slightly surprised by the mayor's plug for his restaurants but did not add anything to the argument. A spokeswoman confirmed later that the mayor was correct.
"We don't use man-made oils, we use natural oils," said Tanja Yokum, a spokeswoman for Myriad Restaurant Group. "There really isn't a price difference, so it's not a difficult decision, and it has been our chefs' practice all along."
If the ban is approved by the end of this year, the city Department of Health would require restaurants to strip trans fats from their food by July 2008.
The city chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association says the law would create culinary nightmares for the city's chefs and maintains Bloomberg is going too far in trying to outlaw an ingredient.
The proposal will be considered after a period of public comment.