According to some in the legal world, it’s possible that trans fats could become the next big legal bonanza, taking over where tobacco lawsuits left off in the early 2000s. The reason? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a stinging rebuke of trans fats, noting in a preliminary ruling that trans fats are not “generally recognized as safe.”
The ruling was made public earlier this month and concerns the safety of partially hydrogenated oils, what are commonly known as trans fats. The FDA says that trans fats have long been known to clog arteries, but the true extent of their unhealthiness has only recently come into view. As a result, the FDA now says that it is no longer seen as safe to include partially hydrogenated oils in food. The pronouncement by the FDA will work to essentially eliminate the existence of artificial trans fats from the American food supply, something that public health advocates have spent years campaigning for. The FDA says that it hopes by completely banning trans fats it will prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.
Many experts say that the latest announcement may serve as the last nail in trans fat’s coffin, though the unhealthy oils have already been on the decline for years. Back in 2006, the FDA ordered all food manufacturers to display the trans fat content on their packaging, something that scared many producers into eliminating trans fats from their products. The FDA says that the 2006 order caused the average Americans’ trans fat consumption to fall from 4.6 grams per day to under 1 gram per day.
Though the use of trans fats is clearly less widespread, they remain entrenched among products in certain categories. For instance, some microwaveable popcorn, potpies, cinnamon rolls, frozen pizzas, coffee creamers and margarine still contain trans fat. Additionally, some fast food companies like Long John Silvers continue to fry their food in partially hydrogenated oils. Experts say that the recent FDA announcement will force the holdouts to substitute other, healthier oils for trans fats or face lawsuits as well as possible government intervention.
Legal observers say that the FDA’s unusually clear language regarding the dangers of trans fats may make it easier for some trial lawyers to launch a new wave of litigation aimed at food manufacturers. Some have said that there are remarkable similarities between tobacco and trans fat, both of which experts long understood presented serious health dangers that companies may have chosen to ignore.
Though people have long suspected that trans fats were dangerous to consumers’ health, experts point out that for a lawsuit to be successful attorneys will have to point to precise information to which the food companies had access that demonstrates the dangers of trans fats, yet chose to ignore and suppress. For the companies to be held liable, it would likely need to be demonstrated that they knew about the dangers posed by the partially hydrogenated oils, but continued to use and market them to consumers anyway. If this kind of information can be found, some say that the food industry might find itself in the same worrisome position that the tobacco industry found itself several decades ago.