The report looked at the pros and cons of different options to reduce levels of industrial trans fats in Europeans’ diets, including voluntary reduction and mandatory labelling.
It concluded that a legal limit would be the most effective: “Consumers would be systematically provided with healthier food options without needing to distinguish products with lower TFA (trans fatty acid) levels. Potential public health benefits would be the highest for this option as all products would be covered and all population groups would benefit from TFA reductions, including the more vulnerable groups."
Other options rejected
Self-regulation could put domestic manufacturers at a disadvantage as they compete with cheaper products containing trans fats from abroad.
Mandatory labelling could in theory incentivise reformulation and allow consumers to make healthier choices. But since consumer awareness regarding the difference between partially and fully hydrogenated oils is low, this option would simply increase the complexity of decision-making for consumers while industry would feel under no pressure to reduce levels.
Both options would allow foods with varying levels of trans fat are on the market, widening health inequalities as lower income individuals buy cheaper foods.
Voluntary reformulation from manufacturers has meant that most food in the EU already has less than 2% of trans fat per 100 g of fat, but this varies widely from country to country and high levels of trans fats have been found in Poland, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia and Sweden. "This suggests that in certain parts of the EU little progress has been made," said the Commission in a fact sheet.
For certain foods such as popcorn and biscuits, up to 50% of the fat content is trans fat.
With a limit on trans fats already in place in four EU countries, and other countries expressing their readiness to implement a limit, the EU market is at risk of becoming increasingly fragmented – another reason in favour of EU harmonisation, the report said.
It could also benefit trade. “Should no action be taken at EU level, difficulties might also arise for EU producers who are interested in access to the US market," the report says. The USA has revoked the GRAS (generally recognised as safe) status of partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of industrial trans fats, and producers have three years to remove them.
The report was welcomed by both consumer groups and health associations. Director general of EU consumer rights group BEUC, Monique Goyens, said: “The Commission finally recommends EU legal limits on artery-clogging trans fats. Setting limits is the only way to guarantee consumers across the EU are equally protected, wherever they live and whatever they buy.”
But reactions from industry were mixed.
The European margarine association, IMACE, said voluntary efforts meant regulation was not necessary. Secretary general Siska Pottie said: "The margarine industry’s virtual elimination of TFAs is a success story in producers voluntarily taking action for health, without the need for regulation. In many countries in Europe, the average TFA intake is already below the recommended limit of 1% energy intake. Over 60% of the current TFA intake is now coming from ruminant sources [natural sources such as dairy or meat products].”
Meanwhile the European vegetable oil group FEDIOL, welcomed the report's conclusion saying it would ensure a level playing field for manufacturers across Europe, but both IMACE and FEDIOL are calling for a limit to be coupled with a deletion of the current mandatory labelling on hydrogenation.
This requires oils to be labelled as either partially hydrogenated – which contain high levels of trans fats – or fully hydrogenated - which contain saturated fatty acids but no trans fats.
While this distinction currently allows consumers to detect the presence of trans fats in their food, FEDIOL said an EU-wide limit would render it "clearly redundant".
Trans fats around the world
In Peru there is a legal limit for social programs that provide food to certain parts of the population.
The USA, Argentina and India have legal limits and mandatory labelling.
In Puerto Rico there is a legal limit in the food service sector.
China, Ecuador, Hong Kong and Israel have mandatory nutrition labelling.
The Commission has called for further investigation to determine the technicalities of how a limit could be implemented in order to minimise the risks of unintended consequences.
Its next step will be to launch a public consultation and carry out an impact assessment, allowing the Commission to take a policy decision “in the near future”.
But given that the present report comes over one year late, it is unsure when this policy may come. Susanne Løgstrup, director of the European Heart Network said: "We hope that the follow up will be speedy; we need to make up for lost time and help people reduce their risks of heart disease.”
According to the European Society of Cardiology, the detrimental effect that trans fats have on heart health and mortality is "beyond dispute", and cardiovascular disease is responsible for 47% of all deaths in Europe, or 4 million deaths each year.