The Obama administration is expected to all but ban trans fat in a final ruling that could drop as soon as next week, killing most uses of an ingredient that has been put in everything from frozen pizza to Reese’s Pieces but since deemed harmful to human health.
The agency may create some very limited exemptions, but the ruling could force food companies to cut trans fat use beyond the 85 percent reduction already achieved over the past decade — a key piece of the Obama administration’s broader agenda to nudge Americans toward a healthier diet.
The food industry believes low-levels of trans fats are safe. Industry leaders have banded together behind-the-scenes to craft a food additive petition that will ask FDA to allow some uses of partially hydrogenated oils, such as in the sprinkles on cupcakes, cookies and ice cream. The industry hasn’t shared details, but officials maintain the uses will represent “very limited amounts.”
For more than 60 years, partially hydrogenated oils have been used in food products under the status generally recognized as safe, which does not require FDA’s approval. But since the 1990s, reams of studies have linked trans fat consumption to cardiovascular disease, causing somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 premature deaths before the industry started phasing it out.
In late 2013 the Obama administration issued a tentative determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not generally recognized as safe. The move sent shock waves through the food industry, which has already brought down average consumption from more than 4 grams per day to about 1 gram per day — an exodus largely fueled by mandatory labeling imposed a decade ago. Scores of popular products, including Oreos and Cheetos, have quietly dropped partially hydrogenated oils over the years, but it remains an ingredient in many products, including Pop Secret microwave popcorn, Pillsbury Grands! Cinnamon Rolls and Sara Lee cheesecake, as well as some restaurant fryers and commercial bakery goods.
If FDA sticks to its guns in its final determination — and most in food policy circles assume it will — the agency will be taking a firm step toward pushing out more of the remaining uses of trans fat.
“This is a massive win for public health,” said Sam Kass, the former senior adviser for nutrition at the White House and executive director of Let’s Move!, noting that FDA has estimated removing trans fat could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and some 7,000 deaths.
“There are few targeted actions you can take in this space that have that kind of direct impact,” said Kass. He said he expects FDA will ultimately allow negligible uses of trans fat, because there’s no science that shows such levels are harmful.
In 2008, Duane Grant, who runs farms in Idaho and northern Oregon, began growing sugar beets from seeds that were genetically modified. As a result, he says he now uses fewer chemicals, tills the soil less often and gets larger yields from the same acreage — increasing profits and reducing his environmental footprint along the way.
“I am proud of that fact,” he said.
But that pride does not translate into support for a burgeoning consumer movement that would have mandatory labels placed on products containing sugars like his, such as juices, soft drinks and breakfast cereals, and on any other product containing a genetically modified organism, or GMO. Grant considers such labels irrational — a sentiment that aligns with the broader food industry, which has been spending tens of millions of dollars in recent years to avoid them, fearing they would drive customers away.
Despite two decades of assurances from biotechnology firms, food processors, federal regulators and even a substantial share of scientists that GMO foods are safe, ballot initiatives and citizen petitions seeking labels on GMO foods are springing up as quickly as the industry can pay — or sue — to defeat them. Meanwhile, sales of foods labeled GMO-free have been steadily gaining ground on consumer shopping lists, and polls suggest that more Americans than ever favor labels that identify GMO foods.
This has even some supporters of genetic engineering wondering if it’s time to rethink the labeling question. “If you give people a choice and value, that wins,” said David Ropeik, a risk-communication consultant. He has begun calling on the industry to let go of its “fear of fear” and embrace GMO labeling, which is required in at least 64 other nations, including Japan, Australia, Russia, Brazil and more than a dozen European countries.
But Grant, like many industry stakeholders, remains skeptical. “To allow popular perception of harm — or benefit — to be the basis for mandatory labeling would not result in food being safer,” he argued. “It would result in the scientific community being pushed to the sidelines in favor of food-fad-of-the-day mob regulation.”
Whether or not that’s true, food makers are spending lavishly to avoid mandatory GMO labels. In 2012, for example, opponents of a California labeling proposition — including Monsanto, ConAgra and other genetically modified seed makers alongside food companies like Sara Lee, Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s — spent a staggering $46 million, primarily on lobbying and advertising, to defeat the measure. Similar efforts in Washington the following year prompted the state’s attorney general to sue the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), alleging that the leading food industry lobby was hiding the identity of the contributors to its anti-labeling campaign in violation of state election laws. The GMA eventually came clean, revealing that dozens of contributors — including Nestle, Del Monte, Coca-Cola and Hershey — had chipped in $7 million to kill the measure.
In almost all such battles, the companies easily outspend label supporters.
Monsanto and Dupont Pioneer, for example, were among a long list of food industry interests that contributed over $15 million to defeat a labeling measure in Colorado during November’s elections, according to state records. Supporters of the bill managed to raise a tiny fraction of that amount. The initiative failed. Dupont, Monsanto, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and other food industry players pumped more than $30 million into efforts to quash a similar ballot initiative in Oregon — twice the amount supporters were able to muster.
The industry is now locked in a fierce legal battle with Vermont, which passed a GMO labeling law last year, and companies have lobbied hard for federal legislation that would bar other states from following suit. A bill that would do that was introduced last spring by Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas who, as it happens, received the largest single contribution — $10,000 — from the GMA for the 2014 election cycle, according to federal data. The bill did not make it out of committee, but Heather Denker, a spokeswoman for Pompeo’s office, said he plans to reintroduce the bill in coming weeks.
The industry justifies all these expenditures on a variety of grounds. For starters, companies say, a hodgepodge of differing state labeling laws would be unworkable, and even a federal labeling rule would make food more expensive. They also argue that genetic modification, which involves the insertion of foreign genes into an organism — so far mostly crops like corn and soy — so that it expresses a new and ostensibly desirable trait, is really just one among a variety of plant breeding techniques that have been used for decades without complaint.
More substantively, GMO supporters argue that there is no evidence to suggest genetically modified foods present any more risk than conventionally bred fare, a view generally held by a long list of scientific organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization.
Taking a similar position, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food from GMO crops in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, has seen fit to leave GMO labeling a strictly voluntary affair.
“As a public health agency, we base our policy decisions on the best science available,” said Theresa Eisenman, an FDA spokeswoman, in an emailed statement. “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class, differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way or that, as a class, such foods present different or greater safety concerns than their non-GE [genetically engineered] counterparts.”
Renee Shutters has long worried that food dyes — used in candy like blue M&M’s — were hurting her son, Trenton.
She testified before the Food and Drug Administration, but nothing happened. It wasn’t until she went online, using a petition with the help of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that her pleas to remove artificial dyes from food seemed to be heard.
Mars, the candy’s maker, is now hinting that it may soon replace at least one of the dyes with an alternative derived from seaweed.
“I’ve really thought about calling them,” Ms. Shutters said about Mars. “I’m not trying to be this horrible person. What I’m really thinking is that this is an opportunity for their company to lead what would be an awesome publicity coup by taking these dyes out of their products.”
While the F.D.A. continues to allow certain dyes to be used in foods, deeming them safe, parents and advocacy groups have been using websites and social media as powerful megaphones to force titans of the food industry to reconsider the ingredients in their foods and the labeling and processing of their products. In several instances in the last year or so, major food companies and fast-food chains have shifted to coloring derived from spices or other plant-based sources, or changed or omitted certain labels from packaging.
Matthew Egol, a partner at Booz & Company, the consulting firm, said that while food companies had benefited from social media to gain rapid insight into trends, data on what products to introduce and which words to use in marketing, they also had been the target of complaints that sometimes become magnified in an online environment.
Mr. Egol said companies were approaching the negative feedback they get with new tools that help them assess the risks posed by consumer criticism. “Instead of relying on a P.R. firm, you have analytical tools to quantify how big an issue it is and how rapidly it’s spreading and how influential the people hollering are,” he said. “Then you can make a decision about how to respond. It happens much more quickly.”