When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled on Tuesday that artificial trans fats are not safe to eat, it stripped the food additives of their “generally recognized as safe” status.
Such a move is rare: In April, the Center for Public Integrity reported on how the food industry, not the federal government, largely determines whether food additives are safe for consumption. When the food industry declares an additive to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, the FDA allows food companies to avoid an extensive safety evaluation.
Food companies, many of which have recently chosen to replace trans fats with other oils, have three years to completely remove the additives from their products, according to the FDA.
From now on, companies seeking to add trans fats to food must submit a formal petition to the FDA and undergo a thorough safety assessment.
The FDA’s ruling today on trans fats — or partially hydrogenated oils — cites a wealth of scientific research linking trans fats to chronic health problems such as heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
The move “demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans,” Stephen Ostroff, the agency’s acting commissioner, said in a statement. “This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food industry, said it will work with regulators to ensure that food manufacturers comply with the law within the time frame laid out in the ban.
“GMA is pleased that FDA has acted in a manner that both addresses FDA’s concerns and minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce. GMA will work in collaboration with FDA to further reduce [trans fats] in foods,” the association’s statement reads.
Trans fats are among many ingredients that public health groups and consumer advocates have pointed to as examples of how potentially unsafe additives can enter the largely industry-regulated food supply with little to no government oversight.
Because the GRAS system is so opaque, critics say, it’s impossible to know whether companies secretly adding ingredients to foods and beverages are monitoring long-term health effects similar to those posed by trans fats.
Trans fats have been used in fried foods, cake mixes and microwave popcorn for decades. But they have long been vilified by public health officials for contributing to the deaths of thousands of Americans.
The ban on trans fats is a victory for public health advocates who have long battled the powerful food industry, which has fought to keep the ingredient in the food supply.
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says the public’s health will greatly benefit from the FDA’s ban on trans fats.
“This is an example of success in terms of people identifying an unhealthy food additive and pushing the FDA, despite enormous industry resistance, to do the right thing in terms of protecting public health,” he said.
Today’s announcement finalizes a preliminary ruling issued two years ago by the FDA concluding that trans fats are no longer safe to eat.
Erin Quinn contributed to this report.
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