The Food and Drug Administration is the federal agency tasked to ensure the safety of most eats and pharmaceuticals. It was the country's first consumer products safety regulator, tracing its roots to pre-Civil War era testing of some farm products. The FDA's mission was given impetus by the Pure Food Act of 1906, passed in the wake of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a muckraking (literally) exposee of immigrant plight, including squalid slaughterhouse conditions. In a bit of unfortunate irony, the agency does not oversee meat and poultry production (a province of the farm-friendlier Department of Agriculture) .
Currently housed within the cabinet Department of Health and Human Services, it claims to oversee the condition of products accounting for 25 cents of the consumer dollar. Much of its food function takes the form of requiring a degree of transparency processed food packaging must apprise consumers of the container's contents. True, there are upper limits of allowed contaminants (e.g., no more than 30 fly eggs/100 grams of pizza sauce bon appetit), but the regs mostly require truth in labeling (even if serving sizes are generally, impossibly small, manufacturers at least must disclose them, relying on our demonstrated inability to do the math).
With the rise of food processing and its associated alchemies a few generations ago, food manufacturers and regulators needed relief from pre-market testing of new concoctions. Thus the term "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) entered the FDA lexicon, to allow ingredients to be included in final food products without pre-market testing. The list of those food-like substances started at fewer than 200 chemical formulations; there are now nearly 5,000. It may not be comforting to know that most have been deemed GRAS by their manufacturers, in a kind of self-regulation regime.
That's where trans-fats come into the picture. Also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, they were invented to extend shelf-lives of products that might otherwise go rancid without that extra touch of hydrogen. Some sensitive, or biased palates might also ascribe pleasant flavor or texture to trans-fat ingredients in a final product. It was invented in late 1800s Germany, became Crisco by 1920 and was widely adopted by US food makers for the above reasons, plus it cost less than animal fats.
By the 1980s, however, research linked trans-fats to coronary artery disease and blood vessel plaque. FDA first proposed to require its specific listing as an additive in 1998, a result that eventually ensued, in 2006. Some municipalities notably New York, banned it from all restaurant food in 2007in a run-up to their War on Big Gulps.
Rather than admit its presence, many food-makers, including fast food chains, chose instead to remove trans-fats from their products. Your curly-fries have thus already been delivered from this menace, but it continues to lurk in processed foods, like cake mixes, whose labels are widely ignored. Hence, this week the FDA proposed a rule to require the agency's specific permission to include them in any foods. They somehow estimate that 20,000 heart attacks, including 7,000 fatal editions, will be prevented (more incomprehensible math).
So, was this a triumph of progressive safety regulation, or yet another unnecessary incursion by Big Mom into hallowed private sector prerogatives? Some will argue that industry had already acted to move away from trans-fats. But that conclusion ignores the fact that it acted under the threat of otherwise disclosing the fats' presence pursuant to other regulations. On the flipside, others will wonder why it took 25 years (or 500,000 heart attacks, if you prefer) from the time when the bad effects were clearly established, for the FDA to reach this juncture. It seems to me they have a point.
I'm inclined to believe that food safety regs are tax money well-spent. Fly eggs are not my preferred pizza topping, after all, although they may be far better for me than are trans-fats. Food, among all consumables, is most universal and most basic. And despite regulation, there are still recurring outbreaks of acute food-borne illnesses, as well as chronic, food-related health problems. Without standards and progressive enforcement, the supply that a free market produces would surely be more dangerous. Those regs provide a level playing field, upon which competition may proceed, consistent with society's minimum expectations.
A companion story on NPR yesterday was instructive about what motivates food processors. Kraft, it seems, is removing an artificial orange coloring from some mac-and-cheese products in response to consumer petitioning. Why is it orange, you ask (don't you)? Because in England a hundred years ago, orange cheese was preferred: it owed its colour to a higher cream content. When dairymen found more profitable uses for the cream, they simply dyed the cheese to maintain the implication of its superiority. Pass the red-dyed number-5 salmon, please.
Moreover, it's important to recognize that, as Michael Pollan writes, the 'modern' diet has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous 10,000. We who agonize over belt holes do well to take his advice to "shop the perimeter" of the grocery store, where the fresh stuff is, and also to avoid foods with ingredients we can't pronounce. I've only recently mastered 'monosodium glutamate.' The food industry is a cunning temptress that promises ever more gluttonous delights I'll grudgingly take responsibility for my level of indulgence, but at least I want to know the food I'm eating is GRAS.