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Britain goes trans-free!

tfX campaign declares "success"

Note - 21/01/10: since this article was written (October 2008) the position has been broadly maintained, at least as far as packaged food is concerned. However we continue to have serious concerns about unpackaged foods in restaurants, take-aways, canteens, pubs, bakeries, school meals etc, which may contain significant trans levels without any consumer declaration. There is no longer any technical obstruction to the use of fats free of industrial trans fat, however cost factors - trivial though they are - mean that some ignorant or unscrupulous food purveyors continue to use trans fat rich oils and fats.

This is why we still need a legal ban - producing high public health benefits at insignificant cost!

Yes, it's true, the British diet is now almost free of industrial trans fat. This was the remarkable outcome of a meeting at the Food Standards Agency on Monday 29 October 2008. Representatives of every food sector present reported that they had either stopped using hydrogenated oil altogether, or were using 'fully hydrogenated' oil which has very low trans fat levels. This included the three suppliers of bulk vegetable oil who collectively supply almost all the oil and fat used in Britain, whether in fish and chip shops, school food, pubs, bakeries, packaged foods, confectionery. They now operate only one hydrogenation plant in the while UK and that one is mainly producing fully hydrogenated oil.

The British Retail Consortium which represents all Britain's major retailers (85 percent by sales volume) said that its members how now reduced the number of "problem foods" with appreciable levels of trans fat from almost 6,000 to just 26, and those will all be trans free by 2008. Typical trans content in oils and fats is now well below 1 percent in all but a tiny minority of cases, and typically 0.3 to 0.5 percent. All the major branded products, even imports, are now very low in trans - even if hydrogenated oil is present, for example in Unilever and Nestle products, it will be fully hydrogenated and not present a trans fat hazard.

This means that the UK as a whole is now operating well within the limits that apply by law in Denmark, where there is a legal limit of 2 percent industrial trans fat in the fat content of food. Even people with poor diets who eat loads of cakes, takeaways and other products that used to be high in trans will now have serious trouble getting enough trans fat to damage their health - and will suffer much more from excess calories, salt and sugar than from any residual trans fat.

The main problem area flagged up was the 'value supermarket' sector (not the UK supermarkets' 'value' brands which comply with their low-trans policies) which import cheap produce from abroad which may contain hydrogenated oil. So if you shop in Aldi, Netto or similar shops, exercise caution. The same could apply to other imports, especially those that are not made by the major multinationals.

The tfX campaign therefore declares success in its key objective! And it commends the efforts of the British food industry in bringing this about, acting ahead of regulatory pressures in the interests of the British people and our health.

What next?

So where should we go from here? The meeting was called in response to Alan Johnson's request that the FSA examine the trans fat issue, and this process is now continuing. There were no objections from the food industry to the principle of a mandatory approach, whether on labelling or a quality standard, and some explicit support as a mandatory approach levels the competitive 'playing field' and builds consumer confidence.

The tfX view is that the UK should adopt either the Danish standard, or an updated version of the Danish standard with a lower 1 percent maximum - reflecting what the food industry is already achieving. This would have the effect of creating a 'low trans free trade area' in Europe drawing together the UK and Denmark, and pulling in a wider 'sphere of influence' taking in all of Scandinavia, and other countries with which the UK has a substantial food trade including Ireland, Germany and France. This would in turn lead on to the establishment of an EU wide standard and bring the health benefits the UK and Scandinavia are now enjoying to all Europeans.

Mandatory trans labelling was also discussed however the question of trans labelling is complex and potentially confusing to consumers. Moreover once all food is low or very low in trans by law, there is no need for labelling anyway. The one exception should be to allow manufacturers, retailers etc to make voluntary claims of "very low trans fat" or "zero trans fat" at legally defined levels lower than the level set by law.

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