New bill proposes stricter trans fat labeling
manufacturers to adjust the labeling of their products in order to
better inform consumers of their trans fat content.
The new legislation is an effort to address the loophole that allows for manufacturers to label goods as containing "zero trans fats" if the trans fat content is less than 0.5g per serving. Announced last week by Congressman Steve Israel, the proposed bill has already gathered support from health groups such as the American Heart Association (AHA) and advocacy organizations, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The '0g' trans fat claim has inspired heavy criticism from consumer groups in recent years. Although this provides food makers with a margin of flexibility in their formulations, it also means that people could be consuming certain levels of trans fats without being aware of it. "Only in Washington does 0.4 + 0.4 = 0," said Congressman Israel. "Now, I'm not proposing a ban on trans fat. But we should give consumers the necessary information to make informed nutrition choices. That's what my legislation, the 'Trans Fat Truth in Labeling Act,' would do." According to AHA, which recommends that American adults limit their trans fat intake to 2g per day, the proposed labeling would help consumers make "wise" choices based on accurate product information, and could potentially save thousands of lives. Executive director of CSPI Michael Jacobson said "there really is no room in the food supply for the artificial trans fat that comes from partially hydrogenated oil. If a food contains any partially hydrogenated oil, the asterisk that this legislation proposes would signal to consumers that there is up to a half a gram". "But, more importantly, I hope that Representative Israel's bill paves the way for even broader federal action to get that one particular artificial ingredient out of packaged food and restaurant food altogether (…) Let's let zero mean zero again." Trans fats have only been declared on product labels for just under two years, following the implementation of new labeling requirements in January 2006. But although the new labeling system resulted in a sweeping effort to remove the artery-clogging fats from food products, it also inspired heated debate on consumer perception and understanding of trans fats. This was partly because of the 0.5g issue, but another hot topic was the blank space left in the '% Daily Value' column of product labels. Found next to the indicated level of trans fats, this space has been left blank because, unlike other fats, there is no recommended daily intake value of heart-damaging trans fats. This inconsistency was recognized by the FDA; when it issued the final rule requiring trans fat labeling in 2003, it also issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to include footnotes in the labeling. At the time, the agency sought comments about whether it should consider requiring statements about trans fat - either alone or in combination with saturated fat and cholesterol - as a footnote on the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP). The proposal was designed to enhance consumer understanding about the cholesterol-raising lipids and about how to use information on the label to make healthy food choices. One comment received related to the '0g' trans fat claim. However, the FDA rejected this suggestion, stating that "whether this causes consumer confusion is an issue outside the scope of the proposed research, which focuses on the effects of NFP footnotes and alternative presentations of trans fat information in the NFP on consumers' ability to correctly identify more healthful food products". The agency added that the Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements has received and responded to a separate letter on this topic from the commenter. Last year, FDA said it would launch a consumer study to determine if footnotes on the nutrition labels of food products will improve people's understanding of trans fat declarations. This was designed to examine how people respond to a variety of footnote and cueing systems, and could ultimately be used to re-evaluate labeling requirements for trans fat disclosure.