Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Can the Government Keep Me Healthy?

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


By Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

December 13, 2013

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a measure that would eliminate artificial trans fats from food marketed in the United States. Citing decades of medical research and the conclusions of several expert panels, the FDA stated that the agency has “tentatively determined that there is no longer a consensus among qualified scientific experts that PHOs [partially hydrogenated oils], the primary dietary source of industrially-produced trans fatty acids, are safe for human consumption, either directly or as ingredients in other food products” (78 FR 67169).

Indeed, the weight of medical evidence indicates that trans fats raise the risk of coronary heart disease in part by increasing the amount of LDL (the so-called bad cholesterol) in the bloodstream and decreasing the amount of HDL (the good cholesterol). In essence, consumption of trans fats clogs arteries. 

Because consumer pressure has already driven the industry to significantly reduce trans fats, opposition to the proposed rule has been muted. Nonetheless, the decision by FDA to move towards complete elimination of trans fats—a more aggressive response than the labeling requirements that have been in existence since 2006—is a rare move that raises fundamental questions about the appropriate role of government in food safety.

First, should the government be regulating food additives? Although we are each individually accountable to God for our stewardship of our bodies, we are ill-equipped to determine which of the many added ingredients in our food supply are safe. In rare cases, adverse health effects appear immediately and drastically reduce demand for a product. (Remember Olestra, the zero- calorie fat substitute added to potato chips in the 1990s?) But generally, the health effects of food additives are more subtle and long term, requiring sophisticated medical research and statistical analysis to tease out. The FDA was empowered by Congress to help the federal government fulfill its role of maintaining the welfare of its citizens, a role affirmed in the Center for Public Justice Guideline for Government. Staffed with scientists and medical experts, the FDA can help consumers make sense of the complicated and often conflicting information about food safety and can take regulatory steps as needed.

In reflecting on the appropriate nature of FDA intervention, we should bear a few key points in mind:

(1)  All Americans are not equally able to access and act on information that is in the public square about the adverse health effects of various food additives. Informed, wealthy consumers can research potential hazards of additives and can afford to alter their shopping habits accordingly, particularly if they live somewhere where alternative food products are available. But Americans on limited incomes or those who live in food “deserts” may not be able to exercise individual stewardship with the same freedom.

(2)  As most physicians will tell you, healthy behavior can’t be coerced. Many patients have been told to lose weight or stop smoking, but for various reasons have been unwilling or unable to change their behavior. The government can take steps to encourage healthy decisions and discourage unhealthy ones, but it cannot make someone “eat healthy.”

(3)  Many additives/ingredients have benefits that must be weighed against potential health hazards. For example, potential adverse effects of artificial preservatives must be balanced against their benefits in preventing food borne illnesses. Food with longer shelf life can also be more easily and cheaply transported and helps retailers withstand day-to-day or month-by-month changes in demand, which then translates into lower prices for consumers.

Taken together, these considerations suggest that some “dangerous” foods, such as sugar sodas and caffeine—harmful as they may be for some people—do not warrant FDA intervention. On the other hand, the agency should take a closer look at some other controversial ingredients, such as artificial food dyes (associated with ADHD in children), which its European counterparts have already restricted. In fact, just this week, the FDA moved to limit antibiotics given to increase the growth of healthy livestock, another strong, appropriate use of its regulatory powers.

FDA has several tools in its arsenal, including labeling requirements and education campaigns about the health effects of food additives, all of which allow consumer demand to influence the market. But to educate effectively, the FDA must maintain the public trust, and so must combat real and perceived problems of conflicts of interest. Although it is judicious to work with suppliers in the implementation of food safety measures, the agency must ensure that its medical and scientific analyses are free from undue influence by the food industry. Public trust is then strengthened when FDA uses its regulatory powers decisively but sparingly to eliminate harmful additives from the market.

-  Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill.  She is a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice and an alum of the Center’s Civitas program.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”