Trans fat ban? The FDA’s attempt to divert our attention

In a desperate move to divert attention from what many believe is a food system revolution, the Food and Drug Administration announced last Thursday it will phase out trans fats, indicating they are a threat to people’s health.

Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said that the ban of trans fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year. But a review of the events in the days prior to this announcement suggest that this “big news” is simply a political, food and chemical industry-backed maneuver to refocus our attention away from the bigger threats to our health: the increased use of pesticides on our food and genetically engineered foods. Trans fats are already labeled and provide consumers with the information they need. Pesticide-laden genetically engineered foods are not.  But let’s review what led to the FDA’s scramble to divert our attention.

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On Election Day, great attention was on Washington state's I-522 GMO labeling initiative, that would require that all genetically engineered foods be labeled so that consumers would know what is in their food and could make educated decisions.

The “No on 522” group – made up of companies like Monsanto, PepsiCo, Bayer, Coca-Cola and Nestle – spent about $22 million and are now celebrating what appears to be the defeat of the labeling initiative. Their misleading, fear mongering ads threatened that food prices would increase as a result of mere edits to packaging text and people reacted, with an estimated margin of defeat of 53 percent opposed to 47 percent in favor.

The months leading up to the election created greater awareness across the country about the potential health risks of genetically engineered foods, and other states were poised to follow Washington’s lead and work towards passing similar labeling measures. Although one could assume the defeat has caused lost traction, grassroots efforts like this don’t die easily. Social media buzz suggests it’s only served to fuel the forces and create greater momentum. GMO labeling proponents are strategizing across the country and momentum is building for labeling initiatives in other states like Oregon. As David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and the largest corporate donor of the “Yes on 522” group stated, “Win or lose, this is a long war. Labeling is inevitable.”

Also last week, the revolution went mainstream when millions of daytime TV viewers were educated on the explosion in pesticide use and the potential health risks of GMOs. Dr. Oz, on his popular The Dr. Oz Show, focused an entire episode on “what the food industry doesn’t want you to know” and stated that the single greatest threat with the food we eat is the exploding use of pesticides due largely to GMO crops. He went on to explain that pesticides build up in our bodies, creating toxin levels high enough to cause a myriad of diseases and ailments.

Viewers also learned that pesticide use went from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to 90 million pounds in 2011. GMOs were created in part to reduce the need for pesticides, but largely due to the increased use of GMO seeds and the proliferation of super weeds (weeds that become immune to pesticide applications), there has been exponential growth in the use of pesticides. And the EPA recently increased the maximum permitted pesticide levels, despite studies showing links to Parkinson’s, cancers, endometriosis, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, infertility, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.  

If the FDA truly wants to positively impact the health of our society and prevent more than heart attacks, then it needs to study the effects of genetically engineered foods on our health, and require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods so that consumers will know what they are eating and can make educated decisions.

Over sixty countries either ban GMOs or require labeling, largely based on studies conducted outside the U.S.. Why is the U.S. lagging on providing this consumer right? The FDA must also work with the EPA to reduce the amount of pesticides used on the crops we grow, despite pressure from tremendously powerful food and chemical industries with incestuous ties to the very agencies that impact them.  Consumers know which foods contain trans fats because they are labeled, but we don’t know which foods contain pesticide-laden genetically engineered ingredients. Focus on the real issue.

Michina is the author of I’m Fat, Help Me and a food system activist. She is based in Seattle.