Sep 30, 2010

Ban on Trans Fat

In October 2009 the Hon. Bob Carr, the former Premier of New South Wales, was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Local Government Association.  In what the Daily Telegraph described on 27th October, 2009 as an impassioned speech, Mr Carr called on New South Wales councils to stop children “being poisoned” by fatty, salty and calorie laden fast food.  Mr. Carr asserted that councils had the power to force manufacturers to stop using dangerous fats – such as hydrogenated, saturated and trans fats – and could force restaurant chains to display the calorie content of meals on menus.

Mr Carr said; “trans fats are poison, a paediatrician from Macarthur said to me recently. Food manufacturers find it best for doughnuts and biscuits, they load them up with trans fats. They are devastating - they reduce good cholesterol and increase the bad stuff. It’s murderous to your health.” I pointed out to Council when those comments were made that Mr Carr
would readily appreciate that New South Wales councils do not have the legislative power to introduce such legislation.  What he suggests is something that could only be implemented by the New South Wales Parliament or  the Commonwealth Parliament.

However, councils could utilise powers under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, by conditioning development consents in certain circumstances on the basis that it is addressing a serious health issue. In determining any Development Application, councils are required to consider, what is contained in s79C, the public interest. There can be no greater public interest than that of the Nation’s and the community’s health. This may not be a solution but may prompt the State or Commonwealth Legislature out of their apathy/

The banning of trans fats might be novel in Australia, but this is not the case overseas. As early as March 2003 by Executive Order, the Danish Government required major reductions in trans fat.
And on the 25 July, 2008 the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzeneggar signed legislation, Assembly Bill 97, or AB 97, that in effect will phase out the use of trans fats in all California restaurants by the beginning of 2010 and from all baked foods by 2011.

Governor Schwarzenegger announced that “California is a leader in promoting health and nutrition, and I am pleased to continue that tradition by being the first State in the Nation to phase out trans fats”. The Governor said “consuming trans fat is linked to coronary heart disease, and today we are taking a strong step towards creating a healthier future for California.”

 In signing the legislation, the Governor drew the attention of Californians to scientific evidence that demonstrated a strong association between the consumption of artificial trans fat and the development of coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as other chronic conditions such as diabetes. The Governor drew attention to the article published by Susan Okie, M.D. on 17 May, 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine where the author suggested eliminating artificial trans fats from the food supply could prevent between 6 and 19 percent of heart attacks and related deaths each year in the United States. Governor Schwarzenegger indicated that coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in California, and AB 97 was a strong step towards removing this harmful substance from foods that Californians purchase and consume.

In the City of New York, the Board of Health took steps to ban trans fats, making it the first city in the US to ban the use of what are considered to be artery-clogging artificial trans fats in restaurants – from the corner pizzeria to the high end bakeries. The determination by the Board of Health stated that restaurants in New York were barred from using most frying oils containing artificial trans fats by July of 2007 and had to eliminate the artificial trans fats from all their foods by July 2008.

The US National Restaurant Association was outraged saying: “we don’t think that a Municipal Health Agency has any business banning a product the Food and Drug Administration has recently approved.” Rejecting the outcry from the vested interest groups, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “nobody wants to take away your French fries and hamburgers – I love those things too.”  He added “that if you can make them with something that is less damaging to your health, we should do that.”
To me, that is logical and sensible.

On the other side of the world in the State of New South Wales, the State Government’s Food Authority refers to what it considered to be considerable controversy surrounding the safety and use of trans fats both over overseas and in Australia.  The NSW Food Authority asserts  “studies show Australia has one of the lowest levels of exposure to trans fats in the world and is well within World Health Organisation’s recommendations for trans fat consumption.”

The Authority advises that despite that, it is working with the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand in conducting formal scientific reviews of trans fat in our food supply. And, as well, it is working with the National Heart Foundation of Australia, the Dieticians’ Association of Australia and the food industry itself to develop strategies for further reducing trans fats in food.

I don’t consider, as the NSW Food Authority does, that there is considerable controversy surrounding the safety use of trans fats overseas and in Australia. The controversy rises when a government seeks to eliminate trans fats and this action impacts on and is opposed by the vested interest groups.

The NSW Food Authority publishes on its website that, trans fats are trans fatty acids. Fatty acids, together with glycerine, are the main building blocks of all fats and oils. Trans fatty acids are unsaturated but, unlike the “good” unsaturated fatty acids found in fish and vegetable oils, trans fats behave similarly to saturated fats in the body and have similar health issues. The New South Wales Food Authority advises that trans fats can be found naturally in meat and milk from certain animals and as a product of fats and oils altered by industrial processes, such as hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is widely used to solidify liquid vegetable oils to make products such as margarines and shortenings and involves adding hydrogen to the oils. Trans fats are not formed through deep frying food in vegetable oils. Commercially produced fats such as margarine spreads, fats used in deep frying and fats used in pastry dough, are likely to contain some trans fats.

In addressing the question “Are trans fats bad?”, the NSW Food Authority makes the salient point that “trans fats and saturated fats increase the level of ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower the ‘good’ cholesterol levels.” “This,” the Authority adds, “can cause a number of serious health problems.”

It is my view that Mr Carr was right about one thing in respect to councils and that is that we are the tier of government that can make a difference straight away. It is nearly a year ago that Council adopted a policy to address this serious health problem whereby Conditions of Consent are attached to any Development Application, or variation of a Development Application, that relates to any food retail outlets, food manufacturer or food suppliers by applying the same prohibitions that were enacted by the New York City. We are about to undertake a review of the effectiveness of that policy but I suspect unless the food industry is compelled by legislation to address the issues in the same way as some other countries we will as Mr. Carr asserted just contine to allow children to be “poisoned” by fatty, salty and calorie laden fast food

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