Politics & Policy

What the Trans Fat Ban Really Means

Fresh & Easy store in Los Angeles, Calif. (David McNew/Getty)

The Food and Drug Administration issued a final decision this week, giving the food industry three years to phase out bad trans fats, still used in a wide variety of products, such as Pillsbury’s Ready To Bake cookies and cake frosting. Now, if you’re ingesting large quantities of either, perhaps partially hydrogenated oils aren’t your biggest concern in life. But if the government’s goal is to prevent cardiovascular disease and preventing cardiovascular disease is all that matters, why stop there?

The FDA alleges that phasing out trans fats will prevent about 7,000 premature deaths each year. (If you believe that these things can be quantified with that sort of precision, you have far too much faith in crusading bureaucracies. Years ago, I attempted to tally up the deaths that various studies, public interest groups and government agencies had attributed to obesity, smoking, salt, trans fats, meat, etc., and came up with a number larger than the number of all Americans who’d passed away that year.) But 610,000 Americans die from cardiovascular disease each year. Will 603,000 be left for corporate America to slaughter because we won’t act? The negative externalities of allowing people to eat whatever they desire are huge.

So if we can ban trans fats in an effort to curtail heart disease, I wish someone would explain what stops the state from banning any unhealthful ingredient it feels like. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading reasons for higher risk of heart disease are diabetes, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.

How could the FDA allow us to keep pumping high-fructose corn syrup into our gullets now that we all understand it’s a contributor to the spike in obesity over the past 30 years? Why do we still sell alcohol, a product that is by any measure more unhealthful than the small amounts of trans fats average Americans consume?

The CDC also contends that if you want to prevent heart disease, the most important thing you can do is to not smoke. Yet our own president (African-American men, incidentally, are at the highest risk for heart disease) may be inhaling tobacco smoke in the White House — a substance far more toxic than trans fats. About 443,000 people die from smoking every year.

Now, President Obama could argue that until very recently, there was no guiding principle in American governance to impel him to try to make sure that every citizen is living salubriously. Maybe, like many other Americans, Obama deems the sensorial benefits of his (onetime?) habit worth the health risk. Maybe I feel the same way about my Haagen-Dazs. As with smoking, there is no lack of transparency when it comes to the inherent dangers of too much trans fat.

Most people, of course, don’t really care whether partially hydrogenated oils fall out of the food supply. What they do care about are the unremitting efforts of politicians to micromanage their lives. Once consumers heard about the risks associated with trans fats, they began avoiding them, and businesses consequently stopped using them as much. Between 1980 and 2009, Americans’ consumption of trans fats dropped by about a third (as did our intake of saturated fats). The FDA claims that “trans fat intake among American consumers has declined from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012.”

As Baylen Linnekin, the founder of the Keep Food Legal Foundation, points out, the American Heart Association has suggested that Americans consume “less than 2 grams of trans fats a day.” So, he argues, “if the FDA and AHA are correct, then current consumption levels — prior to and without any ban — are well within safe levels.”

Even with the decline, the FDA banned trans fats. Left-wing intrusions — small and large — follow a similar trajectory. First come reasonable calls for increased transparency (labeling regulations). If the public remains pigheaded, it’s time to scare you (chilling studies and over-the-top predictions). If that doesn’t work, leftists will discourage you (higher taxes and more regulations). And finally, they’ll force you (banning or mandating) to comply.

With all this, we should not forget the favorite weapon of do-gooders: lawsuits. Government unleashes the lawyers to do their work, punishing companies that fail to comply, even ahead of the deadline. The usual collection of class action attorneys and professional bullies sue food companies that continue to use trans fats for various financial reasons — for example, taste and increased shelf life.

In today’s world, the idea that government could dictate, say, what sort of sexual relationships a person can indulge in — whether they are bad for one’s health or even a public risk — would seem preposterous. Even banning pot is beginning to be regarded as useless intrusion by millions. Yet allowing government to decide what we eat (or what our kids eat) is now considered a moral imperative.

After years of pressure from trial attorneys and junk-science public interest groups, the Obama administration has followed through with its pledge to ban what is — in the amounts most Americans ingest — a benign ingredient. But even if it’s not, we have labels for a reason. It’s unlikely the ban will do anything but create precedents that allow further intrusions into how and what we eat. Which is precisely the point.

— David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and the author of The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter: @davidharsanyi. © 2015 Creators.com

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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