The European Commission is gearing up to propose a legal limit on industrially produced trans fats, breaking a years-long legislative logjam that has frustrated health care campaigners and major food companies — both of which support a cap.
Where advocates and industry diverge is over how long companies should have to adapt to the change — making this the likely battleground once the Commission issues its trans fats proposal in the fall.
These unsaturated fatty acids are added to foods such as margarine and pre-packaged biscuits and cakes to lengthen shelf life. But they also increase the risk of heart disease, one of the leading causes of death in the EU.
In 2003, Denmark became the first EU country to impose a legal limit on industrial trans fats of 2 percent of the total fat content. Nearly 15 years later, the Commission is expected to propose the same limit, according to an official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
DG SANTE Director General Xavier Prats-Monné said at a POLITICO event in July that “the time is ripe” for a trans fats initiative. “I think industry is willing. I think there’s a clear need, and most importantly, there is clear scientific evidence,” he said.
And a spokesperson confirmed the Commission’s objective is to “submit a proposal” to member countries “by the end of the year.”
That proposal will take the form of an implementing act to add to rules on the addition of substances to food, according to the Commission official. It would need to be signed off on by a committee of national experts, which could happen as early as October, the official said.
Health care NGOs have accused the Commission of dragging its feet on the EU-wide standard, since it already released a preliminary report backing a legal limit on trans fats more than two and a half years ago. By that point, food giants including Nestlé and Mars also publicly supported the 2 percent limit. The Commission then launched an impact assessment under the “better regulation” evaluation of EU policies championed by President Jean-Claude Juncker, which NGOs say was unnecessary.
“This is not better regulation. This is a waste of time,” said Susanne Løgstrup, director of the health campaign group the European Heart Network. And now, several EU countries in addition to Denmark have adopted legal limits, including Austria and Hungary, while others, such as Germany and Belgium, have introduced voluntary measures.
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She is now confident the Commission will target a quick win before the end of Juncker’s presidency in October 2019.
“There’s nothing to wait for anymore … This is an easy one. It’s low-hanging fruit,” Løgstrup said.
One aspect of the plan still under discussion is the length of the transition period companies will have to implement the regulation. The Commission held a meeting with both NGOs and industry on the subject in June.
NGOs want it to be as short as possible and recommend nine months, modeled after the Danish legislation. The food industry wants a runway of around two years.
Many big companies already have reformulated their products to remove trans fats over the past two decades, said Dirk Jacobs, the deputy director general of FoodDrinkEurope, which represents food and beverage companies of all sizes. The additional time is needed to allow smaller companies to adopt the changes.
“There needs to be a sufficiently adequate transition period and support for SMEs doing the work in taking out industrial trans fats,” he said.
In exchange for backing the trans fats limit, the industry also wants out of another requirement that took effect in 2014 — the need to include full and partial hydrogenation on food labels — which they argue would now be redundant.
Health groups say they’re on board with that too.
Carmen Paun contributed reporting.
This article is part of the autumn 2018 policy primer.