Friday, July 04, 2008

How to reduce the levels of transfats in foods

I wrote yesterday about how Nestlé is sponsoring a forthcoming Govnet Conference on obesity and how the company has argued for voluntary action on unhealthy foods rather than legislation.

I made the opposing argument in the book 'Global Obligations for the Right to Food', which can now be ordered in our on-line Virtual Shop. See:

This book, edited by George Kent, was prepared by a Task Force of the Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics, and Human Rights of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition. It argues that governments have a collective responsibility to deliver on the right to food if this right is not met at a lower level of responsibility, be it at family, community or nation level.

When it comes to holding some of the world's most powerful corporations to account, particularly with regard to human rights and environmental issues, I argue that binding regulations are needed, rather than voluntary systems.

As you might expect I take the failure of corporations to abide by the World Health Assembly marketing requirements for baby foods as a major case study. I do look at other issues, however, and one is of particular relevance given Nestlé's sponsorship of a conference on obesity next week, where company executives will be rubbing shoulders with UK policy makers. It is the case of transfats.

Saturated fats or transfats are used in processed foods and are blamed for contributing to the pandemic of obesity and non-communicable diseases. They are used because they are cheaper and have a longer shelf live than healthier unsaturated fats.

Transfats were widely used in foodstuffs in Denmark until 2003, as in other countries. In 2003 the Danish government enacted legislation requiring manufacturers to reduce content of trans fatty acids in the oils and fats to no more than 2 grams per 100 grams. Manufacturers were allowed to sell food manufactured before the law came into force and were given a 6-month period when transfats content in food products could be up to 5 grams per 100 grams of the product. From December 2003 sanctions of up to 2 years in prison have applied for selling foods with higher-than-permitted levels of trans fats.

Manufacturers appear to have complied with the regulations in Denmark whilst not changing practices elsewhere. In April 2006 Dr. Steen Stender of Gentofte University Hospital in Hellerup, Denmark, wrote to WebMD with details of a survey of fast food he had conducted while traveling (Hitti 2006).

WebMD reported Stender’s stating: “the content of trans fatty acids varied from less than 1 gram in Denmark and Germany, to 10 grams in New York (McDonald's) and 24 grams in Hungary (Kentucky Fried Chicken).” And: “The cooking oil used for French fries in McDonald's outlets in the United States and Peru contained 23% and 24% trans fatty acids, respectively, whereas the oils used for French fries in many European countries contained only about 10% trans fatty acids, with some countries as low as 5% (Spain) and 1% (Denmark).”

While Denmark’s law has prompted changes, elsewhere in Europe a voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility approach is being pursued to implement the World Health Assembly’s Global strategy on diet, physical activity and health adopted in 2004.

The European Union has set up a European Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health to “bring together all relevant players active at European level that are willing to enter into binding and verifiable commitments aimed at halting and reversing current overweight and obesity trends.” Baby Milk Action is participating in this initiative in good faith to try to highlight the important role of breastfeeding and the need to defend it, to encourage voluntary changes from corporations and to highlight the need for monitoring and regulation.

So how is it going. In 2006 the European Commission reported encouraging noises from the companies: “Furthermore they commit to further develop products reduced in fat, saturated fat or salt and to make these products more available.” Wow!

So while Denmark’s regulatory approach has forced compliance and protected the public from health-damaging transfats in foods since 2003, the voluntary approach puts the onus on consumers to select the healthy option, which is likely to be sold at a higher price with claims as to its health benefits.

An advantage of the voluntary approach, of course, is corporations don't mind sending someone along to regular meetings to make encouraging noises. Politicians find it easier to give the appearance of action, while not having to actually take action that corporations don't like. Corporations will be more willing to open their cheque books to sponsor conferences and other initiatives in the future if they haven't been forced to make changes they prefer to make in their own way and in their own time. I guess it is what you could call it a symbiotic relationship.

Let us see what comes from the Govnet Conference. I could hazard a guess it will not be calling for tougher regulations along the lines of Denmark's.

For more in-depth analysis, references and discussion of other issues related to food security, buy Global Obligations for the Right to Food by going to:

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