Happy New Year, food consumers! The Food and Drug Administration begins on Jan 1, 2006, to require food manufacturers to list trans fat on their "Nutrition Facts" panels.
Many manufacturers have already begun to report the amount of trans fat, which increases the risk of heart disease much as saturated fats do. Trans fats are found in baked goods, french fries, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. To a smaller extent, these fats also occur naturally in meat and dairy products. Leading scientific panels have encouraged consumers to select products with as little trans fat as possible.
The Food and Drug Administration has bent over backwards to act deliberately -- even slowly -- and to make sure that this decision is economically sound. The law that authorized the agency to add new lines to the nutrition Facts panel dates to 1990, and a citizen petition demanding the listing of trans fat dates to the early 1990s. A draft rule was published in 1999, and the final rule in July 2003 gave manufacture another 2-3 years to comply. The agency recently offered to let many companies delay implementation for a reasonable period after January 1, just to make sure they can use up their existing stocks of food labels and avoid needless duplicate printing costs.
The agency's analysis of costs and benefits, published in the Federal Register, is exhaustive. In such studies, seemingly minor changes in the assumptions can sometimes lead to major changes in conclusions, but this rule was not a close call. The agency estimates that even a small reduction in consumption of trans fats would prevent 600 to 1200 heart attacks per year, and save 200 to 480 lives per year. The economic savings over several years (discounted to present value) would be $900 million to $1.8 billion each year. By contrast, even when you sum all the testing, labeling, and product reformulation costs, the total is about $140 million to $250 million one time only.
The policy is very respectful of first amendment issues and consumer sovereignty. Rather than banning trans fat, FDA merely requires that consumers be provided with the information they need to make their own best choice. Judging by the response of leading food manufacturers, such as Kraft, the food giants suspect that consumers very much want to protect their health and avoid trans fat.
In the new label, there is no daily value for trans fat, because there is no recommended level -- better to avoid these fats whenever feasible. FDA considered requiring a footnote saying that health experts recommend "as little as possible," but the agency responded mercifully to industry complaints about this language. The best way to use the label is to add the value for trans fats to the value for saturated fats in your head, and compare that sum to the daily value.
The most important shortcoming of the current rule is that it doesn't apply to restaurant chains -- who use gobs of trans fat in their fried foods.