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North American campaign

The main trans fat campaign in North America is Ban Trans Fats (BTF), run by attorney Stephen Joseph. With his legal expertise, he has been able to launch highly effective and successful legal actions agains some of the biggest names in the food industry including Kraft (because of its former use of hydrogenated oil in its Oreo cookies) and McDonalds (for failing to keep its promise to reduce trans fat levels in its frying oils).

BTF has also been active in Canada, and deserves considerable credit for Canada's recent initiative to regulate trans fat content in food, of June 2006.

The USA now (since January 2006) requires packaged foods to carry a declaration of trans fat content, and requirement has led the US food industry to take major strides in reducing trans fat and hydrogenated oils. However the labelling law leaves out the fast food and restaurant sector, which has consequently continued to use trans-rich hydrogenated oils for frying and as shortening in pastries and cakes.

In response to this, individual jurisdictions are taking their own measures. For example New York City intends to limit trans fats to half a gram in any serving following a lead from Mayor Bloomberg. This is also thanks to the Trans Free NYC campaign, which strongly supports the proposal (81.08).

The contrarians

However the US also has a corporate-sponsored contrarian, anti-regulation movement which campaigns under the banner of "consumer freedom" - the freedom presumably for consumers to eat filth and die young - and which has now seized upon the issue of trans fat regulation.

As BTF's CEO Stephen Joseph explains,

"There is a substantial body of right-wing government haters in this country who despite all laws about anything. Their idea of "freedom" is to allow businesses to do absolutely anything and leave consumers to 'make choices' for themselves, even if consumers don't have any ability or information to make such choices. In England they talk about the 'nanny state'. But here the government is seen by the right wingers as evil and ominous: 'Big Brother'."

The main organisation representing this movement is the Center for Consumer Freedom, which claims to be "defending enjoyment" and allowing consumers to make their own choices about what to eat.

They oppose any regulation of trans fat and have even created a Trans-fat facts misinformation website to this end, which deliberately confuses the generally harmless natural trans fats which occur in milk and meat from ruminant animals, and the industrial trans fats responsible for heart disease and other serious health problems.

The group has considerable support among the US's right-wing corporate-inclined media, such as the New York Sun which on 27 September 2006 ran an editorial opposing NYC's plans to regulate trans fats under the heading Freedom Fries.

A fascinating exposé of the Center for Consumer Freedom by Source Watch reveals that this pseudo NGO is the creation of a leading PR firm funded by such food industry giants as Coca Cola, Monsanto, Cargill, Wendy's and Tyson Foods.

The NY Sun's "Freedom Fries" editorial

A true masterpiece of deliberate ignorance and stupidity ...

While Mayor Bloomberg was in Pennsylvania trying to build his presidential campaign by restricting protections Americans enjoy under the Second Amendment, his "health" commissioner was back in New York launching an attack on their right to enjoy the most delicious kind of french fries. Under the guise of "health," the mayor is proposing to ban restaurants here from serving the best kinds of french fries, the ones made with a high-grade kind of shortening known as trans-fat. And not just French fries, but all foods made with this ingredient.

The last time these columns warned about this was in an editorial called "Bloomberg Fries," which we issued after our Jill Gardiner discovered the city's health department was launching a mailing trying to convince restaurants to use an inferior, more expensive oil, unhydrogenated, on the claim that it was healthier. Our Ms. Gardiner went around the corner to a local eatery. It has fabulous French fries. And there the deli cook explained that people don't eat French fries for their health.

Somebody ought to give that cook a full professorship at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. For it turns out that the city health department took money from taxpayers and saturated the city's restaurant and supermarket industry with hundreds of thousands of fliers warning about the dangers of trans-fat. Health department employees fanned out across town and barged into all kinds of eateries to try to scare them off this substance. The effort went on for a year.

Then the geniuses at the health department did a study, and it turned out that where the city could determine one way or another whether trans-fat was being used, the percentage of establishments using it actually increased - to 51% from 50%. At that point, a person with the normal amount of common sense and respect for people would have paused. Not Mayor Bloomberg. He has sent out the health commissioner with a proposal to change the voluntary curb to a legal ban.

Well, you read it here first. When we first wrote about this, we concluded by saying, "Nobody thinks that the city is going to stop with a ‘voluntary' letter of advice to our food-vending establishments. That will be just a first step to more coercive measures, the kinds that were used to deny to bars and restaurants discretion over how to deal with customers who want to smoke - or don't want to. Next thing you know, New Yorkers wanting a good serving of fries or a nice delicious flaky piece of pie will have to go to New Jersey."

This page carries no brief for trans-fat, other than that it makes such delicious food. We don't have a quarrel with the warnings the federal government requires on foods. Warnings about trans-fat have started to affect buying habits among consumers. But the fact is that some people like a good French fry and deserve to be able to buy them in restaurants that want to serve them. Why a man so eager to be president would spend his political capital on such an issue is beyond us. He'd do far better evangelizing New York as the Capital of American Freedom.

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