The CSPI began officially petitioning the FDA earlier this year to remove trans fats from the US food chain, stating that: "Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils […] cause thousands of heart-attack deaths each year" and that "safer alternatives are widely available".
Since then, the consumer advocacy organization has demanded that restaurants be required to "warn" customers if they use partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs) and in September castigated McDonald's for not keeping its promise to eliminate artificial trans fat from its cooking oil.
However, this week, Alison Kretser, director of scientific and nutrition policy, for the GMA, said that: "The CSPI has dramatically oversimplified the facts about trans fat."
She qualified this by saying that: "Food company initiatives have already led to significant reductions of trans fat across the entire food supply. However, the pace of future reformulations depends in large part upon the commercial availability of alternative oils as well as the time needed to make and test product reformulations."
Kretser said that one of the main challenges faced by the food companies is finding alternative oils that can give products the taste, texture and shelf life that consumers have come to expect.
"For many companies, finding the right substitute for each product they sell takes from 18 months to three years or longer," she said.
However, she believes that an even greater challenge to be faced, once a substitute oil is located, is for food companies to actually secure enough of it to satisfy demand.
"In its petition, CSPI repeatedly cites the availability of alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils as one of the reasons to ban its use. In reality, there is not a commercially-viable supply of any of the alternative oils," she said.
Kretser commented that one GMA member company had reported that reformulating a single brand of its snack foods with Nusun - a commonly suggested alternative to partially hydrogenated oils - would require that it use the entire supply of Nusun currently available.
She added : "Planting, harvesting and processing new crops for oils will take several years to meet the production demand of the entire food industry."
Perhaps more worryingly for the health lobby is that Kretser is of the opinion that an effort to force companies to use alternatives to PHOs before substitute oils are available "would have the unintended consequence of increasing saturated fat consumption".
GMA thinks instead that realistic goals and an achievable time frame should be put in place.
However, Michael Jacobson, the executive director of CSPI, assured FoodNavigatorUSA.com that his organization was not asking for an immediate ban on trans fats, but was simply getting the ball rolling because it was aware of the pace at which the FDA works.
"Nothing the FDA does goes quickly - it took them over 12 years to require the labeling of trans fats - we wanted to initiate the process," he said.
Moreover, he agreed with the GMA's worries that if trans fats were to be banned now, food companies would have supply difficulties and noted that the time it will take the FDA to regulate this issue will give farmers enough time to grow alternative crops.
"Many food companies, especially the bigger ones, such as Kraft and Campbell's are hard at work to come up with alternatives," Jacobson said, adding that he believes that in five years time trans fats will be virtually gone from the prepared food supply, though he is more scpetial about the reastaurant business where labeling will not be required.