December 29, 2006
The FDA certainly knows how to make an impression. Less than a year after the agency dictated trans fat levels appear on product packaging, grocery aisles are full of products proudly proclaiming 0g of trans fat. What impact is the label expected to have? Within three years, FDA estimates, the food labels alone could prevent 600 to 1,200 cases of heart disease and as many as 500 deaths a year.
With predicted success like that, it is surprising that the foodservice side of the industry has escaped the trans fat trauma. Well, not for long. New York City is mulling a proposal for a near ban on artificial trans fat in restaurant food, a scenario that likewise was seen over the summer in Chicago (where ambitions were scaled back a bit to make it a voluntary program), and other cities have similar notions.
Amid this environment, major chains are being wisely proactive on the issue: KFC Corp. is converting all 5,500 of its U.S. restaurants to a 0g trans fat cooking oil (a low-linolenic soybean oil) by April of 2007, a move Wendy''''''''s International made back in 2004. IHOP Corp. is testing trans fat-free oil, as is Burger King. Though McDonald’s announced plans to make a similar switch in 2003, the company has yet to follow through in the U.S.; curiously, the company recently announced its 6,300 European units would see an effort at reducing trans fats by mid-2008, with a new blend of cooking oil that has a maximum trans fat content of less than 0.5g. Danish regulations already forced a trans fat cut for the burger giant there, and Sweden, Norway and Finland are next in line to see the new oil. The oil used in Europe will be a blend of high-oleic rapeseed oil and/or high-oleic sunflower oil; concerns about supply are forcing the company to hold off on similar plans for the U.S., according to reports. All of this comes as suppliers continue to develop shortenings and oils with decreased levels of trans and saturated fats.
One thing seems clear: while many may argue that government regulation is still warranted, the mere threat of community bans and limitations has propelled manufacturers and restaurants to make dramatic changes. Will it be enough? In the face of the health crises facing the country, there is a more-pressing question: will it be enough to save consumers from themselves?