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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Bid to thin out NY fast-food outlets
By Matt Wells
BBC News, New York

New York City has hundreds of bustling fast-food outlets, but if one leading politician has his way, there may soon be fewer of them on the block.

New York fast food outlet
Fast food - abundant and cheap

Worried by soaring levels of obesity and the health problems that go with it, the city council's youthful and slim health committee chairman says the time has come to challenge the rampant growth of fast-food chains.

"They make good-tasting, affordable food, but unfortunately, it lacks nutrition," says council member Joel Rivera, of the Bronx, who also leads the Democrats at City Hall.

"What I want to do is limit the number of fast-food establishments within specific proximity of each other, and try to give incentives for healthy alternatives, and give people choices," he adds.

Powerful adversary

The main idea he wants the health department and fellow politicians to consider involves using zoning-laws to put a cap on the number of fast-food outlets in low-income neighbourhoods, where diseases like type-two diabetes are most prevalent.

People love it to eat, and they're working here. Why would politicians cut them?
Doughnut store manager

It's a legal restriction that has already worked in several other American cities he says, and it makes sense to explore drastic measures, following on from the statistical success of the city's three-year-old smoking ban.

Mr Rivera knows that in challenging the international burger and fried-chicken giants, he is taking on a powerful and profitable lobby, and when the BBC rang the McDonalds headquarters, to request an interview - without success - the media affairs office were already well aware of his campaign.

Heated debate

What is not in doubt, is the extraordinary concentration of fast-food outlets across New York's five boroughs. Standing on one main junction in central Brooklyn, a lone petrol station sign stands out above a forest of colourful advertisements for fatty food to-go.

An obese man in New York City
Obesity is a modern epidemic with far-reaching health consequences
One doughnut store manager just coming off shift, said angrily that politicians should not be meddling in a business that gives people what they want, and provides valuable local employment.

"People love it to eat, and they're working here. Why would politicians cut them?" he said.

Several people argued that although they personally liked a diet of burgers and chicken wings, they would be happier to see greater choice on the block.

"It's convenient, everything is here," said one burger-munching young man.

"Burger King, Popeyes, KFCs right there. It's what we have, we could get better, but we don't get better," he added with a shrug.

Profit before health?

When it came to forcing closures, most put themselves in the position of the worker who might then lose a job.

"This is the United States, everyone's just trying to make money," said one smoothie-carrying customer.

Betty Smith, 70, said although personal responsibility was the most important factor, Joel Rivera was right to think big, and go on the offensive.

Joel Rivera
Rivera knows he is taking on a powerful lobby

"There are too many fast food restaurants in New York, and our kids don't want to eat at home. It's very, very bad - it's killing us with the diabetes and high blood-pressure."

"Shut them down and train the kids how to cook, if they don't know how to cook - put up a cooking school!"

Within hours of Mr Rivera suggesting the re-zoning idea during a council meeting, critics were striking out in the press.

"If an act of Congress could send us all to salad bars - believe me, the food police in Washington or Albany (the state capital of New York) would have already thought of that," wrote one Newsday columnist.

"This other stuff just makes us all look dumb," he added.

Chip revolution

Another vocal critic is Dr Elizabeth Whelan, president of the conservative-leaning American Council on Science and Health, based in Manhattan.

"I think it's an absurd solution - not just from the point of individual choice, it just wouldn't work. If you love fast-food and you're fat, you'd just go to another neighbourhood - and you probably wouldn't jog there, you'd probably take a cab," she told the BBC.

Graph showing US obesity rates

She acknowledges the rising risks posed by obesity, but for her, effective public education is the only way forward.

"We have to start with parents, and then kids, and tell them how many calories they need in a day. There is no other way. Passing laws is simply not going to work."

She suggests another intriguing solution that relies on scientific research and the good faith of the big food conglomerates - better quality fast-food.

The cholesterol-heavy chip could be revolutionised if only the consensus was there between consumers, and providers.

"We have a bio-engineered potato that exists, it's very high in starch, and when you fry it, it doesn't absorb very much oil. Why aren't we talking about that?"

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