It's time for Ottawa to bring in regulations compelling the prepared-food industry to reduce artery-clogging trans fats in everyday products eaten by Canadians, the Heart and Stroke Foundation says.
In June 2007, the Harper government gave the food industry two years to voluntarily slash trans fat levels or face regulation forcing producers to comply. That grace period expires Saturday, says the foundation, and monitoring shows the targets overall are far from being met.
"We have seen real leaders in industry that have removed the trans fats from their products," Stephen Samis, director of health policy for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, said Thursday from Ottawa. "And we've seen others that can't be bothered."
Studies have shown that high consumption of trans fats creates a three-fold increased risk for heart disease and leads to almost 3,000 cardiac deaths a year in Canada alone.
"Trans fats cause heart attacks, plain and simple," Samis said. "On a gram-for-gram basis, trans fats are about four to six times more harmful than saturated fats."
"We really do believe it's time for regulation to get this stuff out of our food supply as much as we can."
5 per cent limit
That was the conclusion of the Trans Fat Task Force, a multi-party parliamentary body, which in June 2007 recommended that the substance should be limited to two per cent in vegetable oils and margarines, and five per cent in all other foods.
Federal monitoring of efforts to reduce trans fats in prepared foods released publicly in three reports over the first 18 months showed progress was made by some companies and by certain sectors, but little or none by others.
The fourth and final monitoring report is now due.
"In the simplest terms, the voluntary compliance to recommended guidelines has been a catastrophic failure," NDP MP Pat Martin said from Ottawa. "We need to regulate and even legislate a ban of trans fats if we're going to ever get it out of our food supply."
Martin, who represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre, also urged the Conservative government on Thursday to stop stalling on the issue.
"We've waited and waited and waited for the government to act, and in the meantime we've poisoned another generation of children with these artery-clogging trans fats," he said. "And in the interest of Canadians' public health, the time has come to get this stuff off store shelves once and for all."
Ministry claims high compliance
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was unavailable for comment. But her press secretary, Josee Bellemare, said data released earlier this year showed more than 80 per cent of pre-packaged foods tested met trans fat targets, as did 90 per cent of foods analyzed from restaurants serving international cuisine.
However, that report in February showed that many of the 517 products looked at — among them croissants, pies, cookies and microwave popcorn — still contained high proportions of trans fat.
For instance, only 25 per cent of bakery croissants, 65 per cent of packaged, labelled cookies, and a third of doughnuts met the five per cent limit.
Bellemare said the final set of data will be released sometime this summer.
"At that time, a decision will be made on what regulations will be required in order to reduce the levels of trans fats in Canadian foods," she said by email.
Samis said there's also an economic argument for moving quickly on mandatory trans fat reduction.
A type of canola high in oleic acid could be grown in sufficient quantity to supply the food industry with a healthy alternative to trans fats; its high smoke point means it also would be effective in most production processes.
"What they need is a regulatory signal from government so farmers will plant enough seeds" to produce enough oil to replace trans fats — and "not just revert to saturated fat," said Samis, adding that high-oleic canola offers a huge exporting opportunity for the country, as well.
"It's time for Canada to become a world leader on this and not a laggard."