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Proposed FDA rule on trans fats could bring costly reformulations for many common foods

Agency will spread requirements over a number of years to minimize market disruptions

A proposed rule from the Food and Drug Administration would effectively eliminate artificial trans fats from foods in the United States by classifying partially hydrogenated oils as unsafe food additives and thus permitting them only in certain cases.

In its proposal, the FDA emphasized that it would give manufacturers of foods that contain trans fats enough time to reformulate their recipes in order to minimize market disruptions by spreading out the initial cost of about $8 billion over a number of years. While trans fats have been eliminated from most foods already, foods that still contain them include frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, margarines and some dessert foods.

According to SymphonyIRI, frozen pizzas had sales of $4.4 billion in 2012, while the Popcorn Board, a Chicago-based trade group, states that 995.6 million pounds of unpopped popcorn — including microwavable popcorn — were sold in 2012. About 16 billion pounds of popcorn are consumed in the United States annually, and of the 70% of popcorn that's consumed in the home, 90% is unpopped.

In other words, regardless of how much time manufacturers have to change their products, removing trans fats would constitute a pretty big change for many important product categories, and a potentially costly one for individual manufacturers. According to Time magazine, a number of popular foods will change after trans fats are removed, such as doughnuts, which could become more oily, or popcorn, which may begin to include real butter. But all manufacturers of foods that currently contain trans fats will have to find new ways to make them while keeping them as similar as possible to the way they were before.

At the same time, it's well-known that artificial trans fats are a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, and the FDA's proposal — despite drawing praise from health organizations and public figures like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — follows a long string over the past decade of efforts to limit them. In 2003, Denmark became the first country to ban trans fats nationally; the FDA began requiring them to be listed in nutritional information charts on foods in 2006; New York City banned them from restaurants in 2007, and California banned them statewide in 2008. Restaurants and retailers have been getting rid of them too: McDonalds, Burger King and KFC have all taken them off the menu, and Walmart has notified manufacturers to get rid of them by 2015. And following the FDA's announcement, public health officials in Australia proposed banning them there.

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