Yesterday the FDA announced plans to take trans fats off its list of GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, foods. To some, like the New York Post with its “FAT-WAH” cover headline, this is a vicious new outcropping of nanny state-ism and an intrusive, sudden national ban that will sweep dozens of treasured foods off supermarket shelves. To the people who have been following this for the years it's been in the making, like Marion Nestle, it's closing an important loophole: that manufacturers could put "zero trans fat" on the label of a food that contained less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. Taking trans fats off the GRAS list won't remove them from the food supply. Manufacturers can still petition the FDA for exceptions. But it goes a long way toward getting them out.
It's an occasion for high-fiving, and there's plenty of that. "The FDA is back," Nestle told the Times reporter—and the agency has indeed been AWOL when it comes to matters it should be regulating faster and more forcefully, some of them, like food safety inspections, excusable because of constantly shrinking budgets, and others, like the national menu calorie labeling that should have been in force a year ago, are explicable only by political caution that with time looks like cowardice. Center for Science in the Public Interest, which first petitioned the FDA to require putting trans fats on food labels in 1994, has been getting and deserves a good deal of credit for its persistent campaign.
But what the announcement really shows is how public health works: slowly, based on mounting scientific evidence, against constant and mounting headwinds of public ridicule and, much more important, industry lobbying and advertising.
Companies seldom change unless they have to, which they say means unless consumers ask them to. If you don’t want trans fats or gluten or genetically modified organisms, fine with us! Just tell us with your food dollars! This is of course a way of saying that they don’t want government telling them what to do, and gives them a chance to shape the public opinion they say they simply obey, with millions of dollars in ad campaigns and lobbying.
Just the most recent example is Tuesday’s defeat of Washington state’s Ballot Initiative 522, the latest of several statewide initiatives to require GMO labeling to fail. Here the overwhelming imbalance in campaign spending got spelled out, as Helena Bottemiller Evich at Politico and others reported, when the Grocery Manufacturers Association was forced to name the companies that had helped contributed $22 million to fight it, as opposed to the $8.4 million raised by Whole Foods, the Center for Food Safety [editor's note: an earlier version incorrectly listed CSPI as a donor], and Dr. Bronner’s, among others. The main soda makers were among the larggest donors to the anti-labeling campaign. (Even Bloomberg View is telling GMO-labeling advocates to give up and move their energies elsewhere.)
Though in my reporting I in fact frequently encounter companies that take it upon themselves to make helpful changes, for example related to environmentally and socially responsible practices, you don’t get companies to re-make their core products from scratch, risking disastrous consumer desertion sales drop-offs, unless their hands are forced. Today Olga Khazan charmingly illustrates a history of just how popular trans fats were with both manufacturers and consumers from their invention, in the early 1900s—and how they were advertised as health-promoting.
The lesson, though, is not that the public shouldn't trust science, because one year’s saturated-fats-are-evil message will eventually become next year’s hey-butter-is-great-when-you-look-at-Crisco. The road to strong public recommendations isn't clear, as scientific research is slow and zigzags. Both food makers and scientists can be guilty of jumping the gun, depending on what they think they can sell or who they can get to fund big studies and endowed chairs.