FDA's misplaced priorities evident in trans fat ban

The Food and Drug Administration has removed trans fat from the list of edibles that it labels “generally recognized as safe.” Trans fat has been linked to coronary heart disease, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that further reduction of trans fat in diets could prevent up to 7,000 deaths from heart disease and up to 20,000 heart attacks per year.

States like New York and Pennsylvania, as well some municipalities in California, have already enacted similar legislation against trans fat. Additionally, many of the nation’s largest restaurant chains and grocery companies cut out trans fat from their foods as early as 2005.

Even if the FDA’s intentions for public health are genuine, this new measure hits close to home for many people in the metropolitan area who were outraged by the proposed ban on large sodas in New York City.

Heritage Foundation research fellow Daren Bakst, who is an agriculture specialist, wrote on his blog that the FDA “is ignoring the most important issue: the freedom of Americans.”

Food producers have been required to specify the amount of trans fat in their food since 2006. Those Americans who are conscientious enough to look at food labels and make their own responsible decisions about their diet should not have their diet regulated like children because of the irresponsible decision-making of a few who choose to ignore nutrition labels.

The ban also puts a strain on food producers, who typically use the additive because it increases the shelf life of their products. Many companies use a very small amount of the ingredient for this purpose alone, allowing them to list amount of trans fat as zero if the product contains less than half a gram.

Another question the removal of trans fat from food labels raises is why the FDA chose to single out trans fat, especially given that many companies and localities have essentially preempted this new legislation with regulations of their own.

For instance, if reducing disease and fatalities is of such importance to the FDA, why are they not increasing the regulations on cigarettes or even outlawing them? The FDA has control over tobacco regulation under the Tobacco Control Act. According to the CDC, tobacco smoking is estimated to cause more than 440,000 deaths annually. Given this figure, the 7,000 lives annually that might be saved from the elimination of trans fat pales in comparison to deaths caused by cigarette smoking.

The tobacco industry, however, is a large source of revenue for the federal government as a result of the high taxes on tobacco products. Thus, it is unlikely that we will ever see the FDA make any moves to outlaw tobacco, even though this would be far more beneficial to public health than eliminating trans fat will be.

While the removal of the ingredient has not stirred the kind of libertarian-conservative slugfest that typically follows regulations like this, many are concerned that trans fat legislation could be a springboard for the FDA to start limiting the amounts of sugar, salt and other ingredients in our food.

Harvard University professor Walter Willett said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that regulating salt and sugar as additives would hardly be as easy as making a decision to ban trans fat. He said that salt is an essential nutrient and that sugar is not harmful when consumed at reasonable levels.

So as far as future regulation of sugar and sodium levels, it appears that our food is safe for now.