Salon Is Wrong: This Op-ed on Trans Fat Didn’t Have Errors

COMMENTARY Public Health

Salon Is Wrong: This Op-ed on Trans Fat Didn’t Have Errors

Aug 11th, 2014 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Daren Bakst

Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy

Bakst studies and writes about agricultural and environmental policy and property rights, among other issues.

When I see a headline accusing an author of writing something that was “error-filled,” well, call me crazy, but I expect to see some errors pointed out.

Alas, Salon editor Joanna Rothkopf’s Aug. 4 article failed to identify any bona fide inaccuracies in Ed Feulner’s July 29 Washington Times op-ed on trans fat. She mostly just shows where she disagrees with Feulner. To take her points one at a time:

1) Rothkopf claims that the point of the FDA’s ruling is to “solely targets trans fat in processed foods, the major source of which is partially hydrogenated oils.” Yes. Which is why, in the second paragraph of the op-ed, Feulner wrote: “Last year, the agency tentatively decided to revoke the status of partially hydrogenated oils as ‘Generally Recognized as Safe.’ A recent FDA update notes that if this decision is finalized, it could “mean the end of artificial, industrially produced trans fat in foods.”

2) According to Rothkopf, Feulner claims there isn’t “enough evidence” to suggest a link between trans fat and heart disease. Wrong. He claimed there isn’t enough evidence that natural trans fat is associated with heart disease.

An article recently published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization explains, “Human consumption of naturally occurring TFAs from ruminants is generally low and there is evidence to suggest that it does not adversely affect health.” Dr. Fred Kummerow, who in 2009 submitted a citizen petition seeking to ban artificial trans fat and sued the FDA in August, 2013 to take action on his petition, cites the same exact sentence on page 20 of his complaint against the FDA.

3) Rothkopf simply disagrees with Feulner’s point that if the consumption of artificial trans fat is a problem, then we have it well in hand. As he stated, “In 2003, we were consuming 4.6 grams per day, or 2 percent of a 2,000-calorie diet. By 2012, this number had dropped to only 1 gram of trans fat per day, or 0.5 percent of the typical adult diet. In short, even without the FDA trying to restrict consumption, we’ve had a remarkable 78 percent reduction.”

Rothkopf doesn’t point out an error, but instead writes, “Awesome! So we won’t miss it as much.” This misses the point — that the American public and food companies are taking action on their own and that the reduction in artificial trans fat consumption is beyond anything that could have been imagined in 2003.

As for whether we won’t miss anything, that should be up to consumers to decide. We can disagree whether artificial trans fat should be in the food supply or not, but there’s no question that it helps with taste, texture and shelf life. The government also has to be extremely careful trying to remove one ingredient without properly understanding what ingredients will take its place.

4) In regard to this quote of mine in Feulner’s piece: “Thus, the agency is trying to conflate nutritional and dietary well-being with ‘safety’,” Rothkopf explains that she didn’t understand what I meant. Again, this isn’t an error. She writes: “The FDA is charged with the protection of public health by ‘assuring the safety, efficacy and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.’ Artificial trans fats are clearly included in that. A hard-and-fast distinction between ‘nutritional and dietary well-being’ is actually never mentioned in the mission statement. Safety is.”

But the FDA, under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, would be taking unprecedented action by focusing on nutritional and dietary factors in revoking GRAS status for PHOs. A law that has been focused on safety would now include diet and nutrition within that safety umbrella. Even the mission statement that Rothkopf cites — which is irrelevant when determining whether the FDA has proper authority to revoke GRAS status — is making my claim for me. The statement doesn’t mention diet or nutrition anywhere.

5) Rothkopf’s final point is that “the FDA isn’t seeking to ban trans fat — rather, it has temporarily rescinded the status of partially hydrogenated oils as generally recognized as safe.” Feulner’s op-ed was about banning artificialtrans fat, not trans fat in general.

Further, this technical point she is making was established right at the outset of his op-ed: “Last year, the agency tentatively decided to revoke the status of partially hydrogenated oils as ‘Generally Recognized as Safe.’

A recent FDA update notes that if this decision is finalized, it could ‘mean the end of artificial, industrially produced trans fat in foods.’” As even the agency has stated, this could mean the end of artificial trans fat, so it is certainly fair to call it a proposed ban.

I should also note, regarding Rothkopf’s “final point,” that the FDA didn’t temporarily rescind the status of PHOs. Instead, the FDA has made a tentative determination that PHOs are not safe. As of now though, PHOs still have GRAS status.

And speaking of inaccuracies, claiming in the headline that Feulner was writing “in defense of trans fats” is wrong. Actually, he was defending the American public’s right to make their own dietary choices in this matter.

Rothkopf clearly disagrees with Feulner, and that’s her privilege. But contrary to the wishes of their hyperbolic headline writer, she hasn’t identified any errors in his op-ed.