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Florida trans fat testing failure strikes fear in food industry

03-Jun-2005

Only one food product out of 33 tested for trans fat levels in the state of Florida was accurately labeled, raising fears that food makers are opening themselves up to possible litigation in the future writes Anthony Fletcher.

"Consumers must be able to rely on the accuracy of food labels," said Florida agriculture and consumer services commissioner Charles Bronson. "Inaccurate labels can endanger people's health."

The only exception was a vegetable oil spread, or margarine, produced by Olivio Premium Products of Boston.

Bronson's department has begun a widespread testing campaign of food products for trans fat content, six months before the FDA regulation requiring food labels to list trans fat amounts comes into force. The move is likely to increase pressure on manufacturers to eliminate the substance from their products altogether, and illustrates how politicized the issue of trans fats has become.

Trans fat is formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine, a process that increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. But the substance has been found to contribute to elevated cholesterol levels and can lead to coronary artery disease.

The issue has been at the center of a number of legal battles, much to the concern of the food industry. Californian non-profit organization BanTransFat.com accused McDonald's last year of falling short on promises to remove trans fats used in the cooking process, and filed a lawsuit claiming false advertising.

The same pressure group also brought a similar court case against Kraft's owner Nabisco.

For food makers in Florida therefore, the industry's failure to accurately label trans fat content could open the door to possible legal action in the future, a distinct possibility given current levels of obesity within the US and the desire to stick some of the blame for this on the food industry.

Indeed, Bronson emphasized that accurate food labels are critical for the millions of consumers who are overweight, have diabetes or are on restricted diets that require careful monitoring of the amount of fats, carbohydrates or calories they consume.

Food makers eager to distance themselves from the trans fat controversy are therefore taking pre-emptive action. Although labels on food products are not required to inform consumers about the amount of trans fat in products until January 2006, many manufacturers are already listing that information, especially those that have eliminated trans fat in their contents altogether.

Frito-Lay, for instance, already discloses the trans fat content of its snack foods. The company says such content is zero for its Ruffles and Lay's potato chips, Rold Gold pretzel snacks and Fritos corn chips.

The PepsiCo division also switched some time ago to corn oil to cook its Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos products to eliminate trans fats from those snacks.

For those that fail to accurately label the trans fat content of their products, there is a maximum penalty of $5,000, but the potential impact on brand value is obviously much higher.

In recent years, Bronson's department has conducted a number of sweeps in which products were tested for calories, carbohydrates and other nutrients listed on food labels, and the Commissioner pledged that those efforts will continue in the future.

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