Four years after McDonald's pledged to reduce trans fats levels on its menu offerings, the fast-food company has announced that it is closer to finding an alternative, healthier oil.

Jim Skinner, McDonald's Corp.'s chief executive, declined to set a deadline for when the changeover would be made.

"We're making very good progress on this, and yet we're taking the approach that we're not going to announce and predict timing on it. But we will get there," Skinner said before an investor conference Wednesday in New York.

"It's just taking a little bit of time because as we move forward, we don't want to jeopardize the iconic nature of the french fry, which as you know is so very important to our brand."

Skinner said his restaurants will be prepared to alter their menus in the event that a New York City ordinance, banning restaurants from serving food containing trans fat, passes.

Trans fats, which raise the levels of low-density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol in the body, are created when liquid oils are turned into solids.

McDonald's Canada scrapped a plan in mid-September to introduce nutrition information on its packaging. Spokesman Ron Christianson said the company has been examining oil options since 2003 but has had a difficult time finding a sustainable supply of trans-fat-free oil.

"We're very much aligned with the progress being made in the United States," Christianson said.

Meanwhile, Taco Bell officials announced Thursday that they plan to cut trans fats from 15 oftheir menu items.

"This is something we've been working on for over two years, and we just believe it's the right thing and the right changes to make in our products," said Warren Widicus, Taco Bell's chief food innovation officer.

Health officials say consumption of trans fats significantly increases the risk of heart disease. While Health Canada has made significant strides in creating rigorous food labelling guidelines, critics often decry the lack of available information in restaurants.

Bill rejected

The House of Commons last week rejected a food labelling bill requiring Canadian restaurants to begin listing calorie counts.

Under Canada's food labelling system, pre-packaged foods and drinks must list information on calories, fat, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibre, sugar, protein, calcium, iron, vitamins A and C in a nutrition box. However, food producers such as restaurants and bakeries do not have to disclose any nutritional information.

In June 2006, Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada chaired a joint task force on the issue of trans fat. The task force noted that 22 per cent of the average trans-fat intake is provided by foods consumed away from home, usually in fast-food restaurants.

However, the task force advised that restaurants would have a difficult time providing nutritional information given limited space on menus and menu boards.

With files from the Associated Press