US health secretary Tommy Thompson, whose enthusiasm for more informative food labelling has previously been cleverly concealed, is suddenly to fight the good fight against obfuscation and the hiding of uncomfortable facts from consumers.

The US government's sudden action, long lobbied for by health professionals and consumerists, is dubbed by officials “a renewed initiative against obesity”. But the labelling changes are the first enacted by the Food and Drug Administration in over a decade.

As more informative labels come into play, they will be accompanied by a consumer campaign warning against the dangers of a much-used ingredient, called trans fat. The substance, commonly an ingredient in margarines, cookies, pastries and other items, is used to lengthen product shelf life. Linked to heart disease and obesity, it is so harmful that the FDA says it cannot establish a safe consumption limit.

Just two months back, a Californian lawyer filed a suit to ban Kraft Foods Oreo cookies because of their high level of trans fat – a move that culminated ten days ago with Kraft’s announcement it would upgrade product nutrition across the globe [WAMN: 01-Jul-03].

Says FDA commissioner Mark McClellan: “Trans fat can no longer lurk hidden in our food sources. Consumers can identify foods high in trans fats today,” he advised, “by looking for ingredients as shortening and hydrogenated oil.”

Secretary Thompson proclaimed: “This is the beginning of a lot more rules and regulations.” The US government estimates that obesity and heart disease cost the country $214bn (€189bn, £131bn) each year.

The food industry, however, is less enthused by the changes: “Trans fat is not something we can remove overnight,” warned the trade group Grocery Manufacturers of America. “There's a cost involved.”

Data sourced from: Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff