It was right there on the label of the white tuna salad, an outlawed ingredient flaunted for anyone to see: “partially hydrogenated soybean oil.”
A customer filed a formal complaint with the authorities. An investigation was launched. A Montgomery County health inspector arrived on the scene, a deli in Potomac. He reviewed the evidence and handed down his verdict: The fish was guilty.
“Wrote them up for a labeling violation and made them aware that Montgomery County is a Trans Fat Free county,” he later wrote in his report. This time the deli would get off with a warning.
The banning of trans fat was among a series of controversial county laws passed in recent years, creating vigorous fights over the reach and role of government and testing the boundaries between personal liberties and the collective good.
Laws such as requiring calorie counts on menus, and requiring domestic workers to be offered a job contract, reinforced the county’s reputation as being one of the most progressive areas in the region, a county that, as one critic said, “loves to act as God.”
The same charge has been leveled against New York, which also has banned trans fat and is now targeting sugary, supersized drinks like 7-Eleven’s “Big Gulp.” Critics call them “nanny state” laws. Defenders say they’re well-intentioned attempts at prodding residents to make better life choices and ones about health, safety and equality.
But is Montgomery County any healthier? Or safer? Or more equitable?
The results are mixed. There have been significant improvements. The bag tax is generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for water-quality programs. Major traffic collisions are down, according to county police, and federal studies show that the rate of diabetes is decreasing in the county.
There are troubling signs as well. Obesity has worsened in the county compared to the rest of the state, and federal data show that fewer residents feel healthier than just a few years ago.
But the effect of much of the legislation remains a mystery, in large part because the county often does not measure whether the laws have any impact.
Many of the health regulations “were put into place without much thinking about evaluation,” said Ulder J. Tillman, the county’s health officer.
Another problem is that, while the county has spent a lot of time and resources passing these regulations, there has been little to no enforcement of some of them.
Take the law passed in 2008 requiring residents to offer domestic workers a written contract. At the time, Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he was worried about “whether we would be deemed to be the nanny government of all time.”
Still, the bill passed unanimously.
Since then, it’s been enforced once.
‘It’s an uphill battle’
In 2007, county legislators made national headlines by unanimously approving the trans fat ban.
The measure provoked scores of residents and business leaders to weigh in. Legislators held several hearings over two months to discuss the bill, which drew jeers from restaurant owners and irate bloggers. “Are we really going to regulate everything?” Trevor Bothwell, author of the “Who’s Your Nanny?” blog, lamented at the time.
County officials rebuffed the criticism, and health officials said it would become a critical step in curbing all kinds of health problems, including heart disease, at a time when Americans consume about a fifth of their calories at restaurants.
“The goal is to protect the public health,” said former Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large).
But five years later, it’s not clear whether there has been an impact on the county’s health, and even Tillman said the effect could be marginal at best.
“It’s well intentioned,” she said of the ban. “But it may not have a marked impact all around, because there are too many variables out there. And you have food industries that basically want you to keep drinking the soft drinks and eating the fatty foods. It’s an uphill battle.”
In 2009, county officials approved another food regulation, requiring large chains to list calorie counts and nutritional information on menus.
But even Trachtenberg, one of the bill’s sponsors, and county officials say they’re not sure whether the law changes behavior. Although they track the number of violations, they have no plans to see whether it will work — which public-policy experts said is a problem.
“You don’t want to spend all of your money evaluating everything, but if you don’t evaluate, you don’t know the value of what you’re doing,” said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.
The law has empowered citizen whistleblowers, like the one who dropped a dime on the FroZenYo store in Silver Spring in May.