The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday said artificial trans fats had to be off U.S. grocery shelves within three years, prompting charges that the Obama administration was engaging in regulatory overreach in service of a nanny-state agenda that won’t stop here.
The FDA declared two years ago that trans fats were threats to public health and released a specific plan giving packaged-cookie makers, ready-made frosting producers and margarine suppliers until 2018 to eliminate the artery-clogging substance from their products.
Artificial trans fats, also widely called partially hydrogenated oils, typically are used for fried and baked goods. They must be replaced by healthier alternatives because they are no longer “generally recognized as safe,” the FDA said in a statement.
The American Heart Association called the regulation a “historic victory for the nation’s health,” and the FDA estimated that the ban could reduce coronary heart disease and prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.
Former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who outlawed trans fats from city restaurants in 2006, applauded the announcement on Twitter, saying, a “ban on artificial #TransFats is a sensible #PublicHealth measure that worked in NYC & will work nationwide.”
Critics, however, called it a nanny-state measure that would do little to improve health nationwide and warned of further attempts to ban food products merely because they are unhealthy rather than unsafe.
“It’s not as if when you get people not to eat trans fats they are going to be eating quinoa,” said Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Others say the FDA’s latest ban exceeds its regulative authority and that food producers had better beware of other unhealthy ingredients.
“The FDA’s role on the food side is to protect the safety of the public and make sure the ingredients of the food supply are safe. That’s different than making sure people eat something that’s healthy,” said Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation.
“Other ingredients are coming. That’s their intent: to go after sugar, sodium, caffeine,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, penned a letter to the FDA in March expressing his own concerns about the trans fat ban, which was first proposed in 2013. Mr. Paul, an ophthalmologist, said there are “practical and process concerns” with the policy.
“Many foods contain very small [partially hydrogenated oil] amounts left over from processing, and PHOs are used to help with shelf life or texture. Additional reformulation of products will likely remove many food choices from grocery store shelves and/or raise food prices,” Mr. Paul wrote.
He said the likely product substitutes could have nutritional, palatability and environmental problems.
Food chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A and Dunkin’ Donuts cut trans fats from their menus ahead of Tuesday’s announcement. In addition to New York, cities such as Boston and Philadelphia have imposed bans on artificial trans fats in restaurants.
Since 2006, the FDA has required companies to include trans fat content information on their nutrition labels, and many producers have eliminated trans fats altogether. The FDA estimates that consumption of trans fats fell by 78 percent from 2003 to 2012 and Americans ate about 1 gram a day on average in 2012, down from 4.6 grams in 2006.
The National Restaurant Association, the largest food service trade association in the world, said the FDA’s announcement “comes at a time when restaurateurs have largely reduced or eliminated partially hydrogenated oils from menu items.”
Still, trace amounts of trans fats can be found in some processed foods such as frozen pizza, microwave popcorn and baked goods purchased in grocery stores.
Food giants such as General Mills have taken significant steps to eliminate trans fats from most of their products, but pie crusts and Pillsbury crescent rolls are among items that still contain trans fats.
Kirstie Foster, a spokeswoman for General Mills, said the company has eliminated trans fats in more than 95 percent of its U.S. retail products and “work on the rest of the portfolio is underway.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the main trade group for the food industry, is working with companies on a petition to formally ask the FDA whether some trans fats can be used when there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm.”
“GMA’s food additive petition to FDA will show that the presence of trans fat from the proposed low-level uses of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) is as safe as the naturally occurring trans fat present in the normal diet,” the statement said.
The FDA estimates that the ban will cost the food industry $6.2 billion over 20 years as it reformulates products and substitutes ingredients.