The FDA’s proposed ban on trans fats is great news. But it doesn’t go far enough:
Who do you trust to regulate the safety of some of the most basic goods you consume every day: An independent expert, or the industry that makes billions of dollars selling those very goods?
When it comes to food, we are forced to trust the industry. This month, the federal government is trying to implement the food safety standards it passed in 2011 as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first substantial piece of federal food safety regulation in decades. The new safety standards are modest; they do not address anything near the full range of food safety issues facing the American public. Yet, successfully implementing even these minor changes remains a challenge. And the food industry continues to have significant influence over basic safety and public health.
Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not immune to this influence. It has finally recommended that artificial trans fats, an ingredient found in many processed foods, no longer be “generally recognized as safe,” despite serious health concerns about them that have been well-known for years. The FDA’s proposal is an important but much delayed step — so much so that the industry is responding to it with a mere shrug. The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that trans fats pose major health risks, and the FDA estimates that a ban could prevent 7,000 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks every year. But the food industry is not pushing back too hard on the proposed ban, because it has already had to adjust to a shift against trans fats, after local governments took steps (that the federal government did not) to promote the health of their citizens: New York City, California, Philadelphia, Cleveland and others banned the use of trans fats in restaurants years ago, stigmatizing them so much that consumers began largely avoiding their consumption.
Consumption of trans fats has significantly decreased over the past few years precisely because of local bans and the awareness they raised. But the FDA’s proposed ban is notable precisely because it is a disturbingly rare intervention on the part of a federal agency into food safety. An August 7 study co-authored by Pew Charitable Trusts and published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that Americans are almost entirely reliant on food companies to self-assess the safety of the additives they use to make food less perishable, look nicer and taste better. Those additives, including artificial sweeteners, coloring, salt and fats, also help food companies make their products cheaper and more appealing to consumers — and are not subject to outside scrutiny.
The degree to which the American food industry is unregulated should shock all of us. Now, our food safety standards are better than many places around the world, and government and industry regulation have made our food supply very safe — don’t listen to the DIY-obsessives who complain that things were so much better back in the day when everyone grew their own or traded with neighbors. Things were not better back in those days, because a lot of people got sick and died from the food they ate. Despite reports of salmonella outbreaks and various contaminations, food today is generally safer than ever, at least when it comes to stuff that will kill you immediately. What’s not safer is the sheer volume of chemicals, artificial ingredients, fat, sugar and salt in much of the food we eat — especially some of the most affordable and easily-accessible food. While many consumers could certainly be better at avoiding processed foods, it’s not so easy when the food industry has broad leeway to advertise their products with wildly misleading claims that imply health — “a good source of fiber,” “contains 8 necessary vitamins and minerals,” “made from real juice.” Giant money-making entities are not so good at regulating themselves, and it’s a shame that our government hasn’t stepped in more aggressively to make sure that consumers aren’t being sold a false bill of goods, along with plates of food that are slowly destroying our health.