EU Preliminary Impact Assessment on Trans Fats policy options

The EU Commission just published an inception impact assessment about a potential upcoming Regulation about limitation of trans fats in foods (3rd quarter 2017).

Although different actions were taken in different Member States of the EU and intakes of trans fats have overall decreased over the past years, other Member States have not taken action.

Industrial trans fats are still present at levels of concern in certain foods in the EU and intakes are still excessive in certain cases (especially having in mind EFSA’s recommendation that trans fats intakes should be as low as is possible within the context of a nutritionally adequate diet). The issue is of particular relevance in certain Member States and for particular population groups. This lack of homogeneity in the EU hampers the effective functioning of the Internal Market, negatively affects the protection of consumers’ health and contributes to the perpetuation of health inequalities.

The Commission is currently considering an EU-based initiative to limit trans fats intakes, which would have the added value of coherent and simultaneous application in the entire EU. This initiative would focus on industrial trans fats, given that ruminant trans fats sources generally contribute in a limited way to the total daily energy intake and ruminant trans fats are naturally present in foods that are important in the EU diet and cannot therefore totally be avoided.

The Commission presented its first analysis on trans fats in its report to the European Parliament and the Council of 3 December 2015 regarding trans fats in foods and in the overall diet of the Union population. The report was requested by Article 30(7) of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and the Council on the provision of food information to consumers which stated: “By 13 December 2014, the Commission, taking into account scientific evidence and experience acquired in Member States, shall submit a report on the presence of trans fats in foods and in the overall diet of the Union population. The aim of the report shall be to assess the impact of appropriate means that could enable consumers to make healthier food and overall dietary choices or that could promote the provision of healthier food options to consumers, including, among others, the provision of information on trans fats to consumers or restrictions on their use. The Commission shall accompany this report with a legislative proposal, if appropriate”.

The report concluded that a legal limit for industrial trans fats would be the most effective measure in terms of public health, consumer protection and compatibility with the Internal Market but that further investigation is required. In accordance with Better Regulation principles, the Commission communicated its intention to carry out an impact assessment, including a public consultation on the matter, in order to take an informed policy decision in the near future.

This Inception Impact Assessment (IIA) marks the beginning of the announced work of the European Commission.

All the stakeholders that intervened in the debate on trans fats so far have welcomed the Commission’s report and/or supported an EU initiative to set legal limits to industrial trans fats in foods, both on the consumers’ side and on the industry’s side. The issue would therefore appear not controversial and the added value of an EU initiative in the field would seem undisputed.

In several platforms, EU action on industrial trans fats has been defined by consumers’ organisations and food business operators as a “low hanging fruit” that would improve consumers’ health at very limited costs. In this context, of particular note are the number of reformulation commitments to lower the content of industrial trans fats in foods made in the past years by food manufacturers in the EU Platform for Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

The positions of industry stakeholders (well summarised in a statement by Food Drink Europe of 19 November 2015) 17 indicate that the industrial trans fats content of foods can effectively be lowered without disproportionate costs (this was confirmed in Denmark, the first Member State introducing a legal limit for industrial trans fats in foods), that an EU initiative would benefit not only to consumers but also to the industry by setting a level playing field in the Internal Market, and that particular support might be needed for SMEs.

In the EU, it is of particular note that legislative measures limiting the content of industrial trans fats to 2% of the total fat content of the food were adopted in Denmark (2003), Austria (2009), Hungary (2013) and Latvia (2015). In Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the UK and Greece, voluntary self-regulation measures have been agreed with the food industry. Legal measures limiting the content of industrial trans fats in foods exist also outside the EU (e.g. in Switzerland, Iceland, Norway as well as in the US, where the Food and Drug Administration concluded in 2015 that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of industrial trans fats, are no longer to be considered as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food).

EU legislation sets legal limits for trans fats in infant formula and follow-on formula (3% of the total fat content of the food, to allow for the use of milk, which naturally contains ruminant trans fats, as a source of fat). Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 requires since 13 December 2014 to specify in the ingredients list of all prepacked foods (non pre-packed foods are not covered by this provision) whether refined fats/oils are partly hydrogenated. The Regulation however does not require the indication of the exact trans fats content of foods in the nutrition declaration and they cannot even declared in the table on voluntary basis.

The options examined in this IIA, are the following:

  • Option 0 – No EU policy change (baseline scenario)
  • Option 1 – Establishment of a limit for the industrial trans fats content in foods

In this option, the EU would establish a limit for the presence of industrial trans fats in foods (both pre-packed and non-pre-packed), through voluntary agreement with relevant stakeholders or with legally binding measures.

  • Option 2 – Introduction of the obligation to indicate the trans fats content of foods in the nutrition declaration
  • Option 3 – Prohibition of the use of partly hydrogenated oils (PHO) in foods

In this option, the EU would follow the same approach as adopted in the US and would prohibit the use of PHOs in foods, on the basis of the consideration that these are the primary dietary source of industrial trans fats. As in the case of Option 1, this could be achieved through a voluntary agreement with the relevant food business operators, or a legally-binding measure

The following future consultations are planned in order to obtain further feedback in preparation for the Impact Assessment:

  • Open Public consultation (12 weeks): this consultation will be open to everyone and will be carried out on the basis of a consultation document that will take into account the comments submitted on the IIA. It will be aimed at obtaining feedback on the different policy options and the expected impacts.
  • Targeted consultation to be carried out by the contractor in the context of its study: this consultation will cover stakeholders with a specific interest in the initiative (consumers’ and health NGOs, food business operators and national authorities) and will be aimed at collecting feedback to triangulate (verify) the contractor’s findings on the expected impacts that the options finally retained for the Impact Assessment will have in a number of different areas (e.g. protection of consumers’ health, costs and regulatory burden, offer of products to consumers, functioning of the Internal Market, competitiveness, external trade, enforcement). The Commission will be particularly interested in collecting feedback at local level, from SMEs and manufacturers of non-pre-packed foods.

The last part of the IIA offers an interesting first evaluation of all the policy options impact on environment, economy, internal market, public health, SMEs, international trade and all the main stakeholders involved.

EFSA report on emerging risk – Plastic rice frauds listed

Last week the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its annual report on emerging risks. The top 10 risks were defined as follows:

  1. Outbreak related to the consumption of raw beetroot in France;
  2. Growth of Vibrio spp in Northern waters and TTX detection in European bivalve shellfish in UK;
  3. Putative new influenza virus that has been identified in livestock species (cattle and swine) in Belgium;
  4. Risks from the consumption of bitter apricot kernels from Greece;
  5. Increase of deoxynivalenol and zearalenone levels from Italy in 2014;
  6. Dermatitis due to raw or undercooked Shiitake consumption from France;
  7. Increased incidence of Salmonella Infantis in broiler meat from Croatia;
  8. Zoonotic spread of CPE/CPA from Finland;
  9. Artificial plastic rice from UK;
  10. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis outbreak in raw milk from Finland;
  11. Hay as food or food additive from Austria;
  12. Oxalic acid in green smoothies from Germany;
  13. Natural occurrence of bisphenol F (BPF) in mustard from Switzerland.

The report is of extreme interest and each investigation worth a look, but due to my insane passion for food frauds, I will report the specific findings about the “artificial plastic rice” from China.

Artificial plastic rice – Description of the issue

In 2011 reports began circulating in media across South East (SE) Asia that artificial (plastic) rice was being produced in China, which was subsequently being sold in towns such as Taiyuan in Shaanxi province.

The issue was raised in 2013 by European Parliament seeking clarification on whether the Commission was aware of the practice, and if so, what safeguards were in place to prohibit artificial rice from entering into the EU.

A briefing note was prepared by the UK for discussion by EREN, Emerging Risks Exchange Network.

The European Commission response of 20 September 2013 to the Parliamentary question states that rice products originating in China are subject to Commission Implementing Decision 2011/884/EU, recently amended to Commission Implementing Decision 2013/287/EU, which stipulates consignments of rice originating from China can be released for free circulation only if accompanied by analytical report demonstrating it is GM free and a health certificate issued by the Chinese competent authority (AQSIC) certifying the rice has been produced, sorted, handled, processed, packaged, and transported in line with good hygiene practice.

In October 2015 EFSA received a pressa article from an ECDC colleague from their Epidemic Intelligence monitoring. The information on ‘plastic rice’ was apparently found in several media that week. This rice is likely to be commercialised throughout Asia according to some media. The rice is produced using a mix of potatoes, sweet potatoes and plastic. It is formed by mixing the potatoes and sweet potatoes into the shape of rice grains, at this point industrial synthetic resins are then added.

It would appear that appropriate tools are in place which reduces the risk of affected products entering the EU, nevertheless, the UK would like to encourage a discussion on the subject, firstly to highlight the practice, but also to consider whether a risk of entry into the EU still remains via third country involvement.

Key points from the discussion, the conclusions and the recommendations

The INFOSAN Secretariat received several inquiries from INFOSAN members in Asia as concerns over fake rice were perpetuated in the media. The Secretariat reached out to INFOSAN members in China to inquire about this event and to verify or dispel the rumours. Unfortunately no further information was supplied.

One INFOSAN member from another Asian country reported a suspected case of illness following the consumption of the implicated rice, but this could not be confirmed upon further investigation and no fake rice was found.

This event highlights the added difficulties that arise during food safety events that result from fraud. In addition, gaps in the analytical methodologies to test for “fake rice” were also raised.

The US FDA and their food fraud network are aware of the issue and are monitoring the rice imported from China. Assumptions arose that this fake rice is exported mainly to the African continent.

EREN discussed the difficulty linked to this issue as no proper risk characterisation can be done unless the different risk characterisation questions such as, which different types of resins are used to produce the fake rice, are properly identified.

EREN concluded that this is considered as an emerging issue. EREN recommended EFSA to contact its different international collaborators from Asia and remain liaised with INFOSAN to be kept updated on this issue.

(Source: EFSA website)