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Published November 18, 2013, 10:31 AM

FDA ban would affect area farmers

The trans fat issue is important to Upper Midwest agriculture.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Upper Midwest farmers have a big stake in the Food and Drug Administration’s potential ban on trans fat in processed food.

The proposed ban, which appears likely to be implemented, could increase demand for canola and sunflower oil free of trans fat.

“There’s definitely an opportunity to gain more market share,” says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association in Mandan, N.D.

A ban also would hurt demand for soybean oil that contains trans fat.

“This is a real concern,” says Bill Zurn, a Callaway, Minn., farmer and board member of the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council.

Minnesota and South Dakota are major producers of soybeans. The crop is increasingly important in North Dakota, as well.

North Dakota and South Dakota take turns, depending on the year, as America’s top sunflower producer. North Dakota is the nation’s dominant canola producer.

A ban would help canola because high-oleic canola oil, already popular with consumers and food manufacturers, is free of trans fat, says Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association in Bismarck, N.D.

Both high- and mid-oleic varieties of sunflower oil are free of trans fat, Sandbakken says.

Walmart recently began offering a bottled sunflower oil, he notes.

FDA announcement

The use of trans fat in processed food, which has concerned public health advocates for years, took a new twist in early November. FDA announced it has made a “preliminary determination” that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, “are not generally recognized as safe in food.”

A final decision to remove the generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, status would phase out the use of partially hydrogenated oils over a “number of years,” according to FDA.

The agency says it’s “on a clear path” to remove GRAS status.

Trans fat occurs naturally in some meat and dairy products, but most is found in processed food that contain vegetable oils treated with hydrogen to extend shelf life, improve texture and stabilize flavors. The process, in widespread use for decades, is called hydrogenation.

The ban would apply only to artificial trans fats, not those occurring naturally, FDA says.

Health advocate concerns

Public health advocates have argued for years that trans fat clogs arteries and leads to serious health problems.

“Trans fat can raise your cholesterol, so eat as little trans fat as possible,” according to WebMD.

A number of organizations, including the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the most recent FDA announcement.

Further reducing trans fat in the American diet could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart attack annually, according to FDA.

In 2003, FDA issued a regulation that, by 2006, artificial trans fat had to be listed on food labels. That led many large food producers to eliminate trans fat.

The food industry has voluntarily cut trans fat in processed foods by more than 73 percent since 2005, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

That’s been bad for soybean oil and good for competing oils such as canola and sunflower.

Since 2006, the U.S. soybean industry has lost 4 billion pounds of annual edible-oil market share to other oils, according to information from the United Soybean Board, which administers soybean checkoff money for research and commercialization.

Nonetheless, trans fat still can be found in many products, including cookies, crackers, pizza dough, microwavable popcorn and some stick margarine, according to WebMD.

The issue has global implications, as well. The World Health Organization, which has called for eliminating trans fat from the world food supply, says a number of countries around the world are working to reduce trans fat in their food.

ASA position

Most soybean oil consumed is not partially hydrogenated and is free of artificial trans fat, the American Soybean Association says in a news release.

Further, the soybean industry is developing soybean varieties that “are high in heart-healthy high-oleic fatty acids and eliminate the need for partial hydrogenation,” according to the release.

“Significant quantities” of high-oleic soybean oil should be available by 2016. Any FDA determination on trans fat should reflect that timeframe, ASA says.

As many as 4 million U.S. soybean acres could be lost if FDA moves too quickly, according to the ASA, which wants more time to further develop healthier soybean oil.

About 75.7 million acres of the crop will be harvested nationally this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates.

Zurn says the soybean industry has worked long and hard to develop new varieties and has made considerable progress.

“It’s just going to take a little longer,” he says.

Soybeans have many nonfood uses, too, including the industrial lubricant industry. The high-oleic soybean oil will be better for the other uses, as well, Zurn says.

The FDA has a 60-day comment period, which began Nov. 8, to collect additional input on trans fat. More information: www.fda.gov/Food/NewsEvents/ConstituentUpdates/ucm373925.htm.

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