February 15, 2017
By Elias Papadopoulos, Political Consultant
In October 2016 the European Commission published an inception impact assessment on trans fats, expressing its willingness to consult on different policy options to possibly reduce the amount of trans fats in Europeans’ diets.
It is of course too early to tell what the results will be and whether any action will be taken at the EU level. The evidence in favour of action, nevertheless, seems overwhelming; a broad scientific consensus that trans fats increase the risk of or are associated with coronary disease, other cardiovascular diseases, obesity and diabetes; wide stakeholder support not just by health and consumer groups, but by the likes of Nestlé, Kellogg’s, Mars and Mondelēz; an example of regulation in Denmark with promising results; and a range of options to replace trans fats for the food sector. Regulatory action seems necessary, feasible, desirable, effective and relatively cheap.
This could indeed be a case where EU-wide rules could achieve substantial results, relatively simply and with a minimum disruption to businesses – trans fats are present only in specific products (e.g. biscuits, microwave popcorn), with the majority of food products containing very low levels or none at all.
But we all know that, despite all the evidence and strong case for action, the devil lies in the detail and the EU policy-making system works in a way that allows minority positions to be disruptive. The European Commission has, broadly speaking, four key options at its disposal:
- Impose mandatory labelling of trans fats;
- Legislate to limit trans fats content in food;
- Support voluntary industry agreements aiming to reduce trans fats content (FoodDrinkEurope has done considerable work in that direction);
- Develop guidance for Member States wishing to set their own limits on trans fats content.
The last option does appear to be attractive, especially given that regional disparities in trans fats consumption are well documented. It risks, however, creating Single Market problems, as different levels of trans fats in place in different Member States could negatively affect the free movement of goods. Similarly, voluntary agreements, although largely successful, will not help bring down trans fats levels in the specific product categories making the most use of them.
The most likely choice, therefore, will be between imposing mandatory limits on the use of trans fats or mandatory labelling. Research shows that labelling is the least effective of the two, as consumers are generally not aware of trans fats and their associated risks, meaning that the labelling option would need to be accompanied by a large-scale consumer awareness campaign. This option can also only cover packed foods and not, for instance, food sold in restaurants, where trans fats are often used (e.g. in fryers).
In light of recent findings that cardiovascular disease accounts for 45% of deaths in Europe and costs the economy €210 billion a year, regulating trans fats is poised to become an important part of EU public health policy. At the same time, the Commission’s inception impact assessment will be the beginning of a long process that will inevitably have to take into account a range of different interests to reach the necessary consensus and implement the selected course of action.