The coming crackdown on trans fats.
Pretty soon, you won't have to go to Denmark. In January, the FDA began requiring trans-fat information on food labels. Legislators in New Jersey, Chicago, and Louisville floated trans-fat bans even before New York's plan went through. Restaurants say health crusaders won't stop with trans fats, and they're right. The same day it banned trans fats, New York ordered restaurants with standardized menus to prominently display the number of calories in each item. A Chicago councilman wants to copy that idea.
From a libertarian standpoint, the danger is that trans fats, having been targeted because, in some ways, they're not food, will lay the groundwork for more dietary regulation because, in other ways, they are. Once you've banned one kind of fat, it's easier to tackle another. You start with the argument health crusaders used in Chicago: You're doing it to help parents protect kids. Then you try the maneuver they used in New York: quantifying now many lives you'll save. Purging trans fats in New York would save at least 500 lives a year and possibly 1,400, said the health department. That's more than the number saved by seat belts.
The health-policy climate is clearly shifting in this direction. The instigator of the New York ban, city health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, says chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes are eclipsing infectious diseases. Most experts and politicians share that view. We already regulate restaurants for infectious disease; why not extend that scrutiny to chronic disease? That's how New York plans to enforce its ban: "Food safety inspectors will check for artificial trans fat during regular yearly inspections."
Even the business lobby is playing along. Every restaurant association that testified against New York's ban pointed out that on aggregate, if not ounce for ounce, saturated fats are more harmful than trans fats. This was supposed to be an argument against the ban. But once you accept the ban, it becomes an argument for targeting saturated fats, too. Way to go, food industry! First you concoct a fat that begs for regulation; then you make the case for going beyond it. You're cooking your own goose. Extra crispy, of course.
A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.