General Mills to McDonald’s Got Jump on FDA Trans Fats Cuts

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fda-logoThe U.S. government’s decision to deem artificial trans fats unsafe for human consumption may have little impact on foodmakers and restaurant chains because they’ve been phasing them out for years.

Under pressure from activists such as the American Heart Association and city and state governments, companies from General Mills Inc. (GIS) to McDonald’s Corp. have been ridding their products of partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats linked to a type of artery-clogging cholesterol.

Foodmakers have lowered trans fats in their products by 73 percent since 2005, according to Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers Association. More than 90 percent of General Mills U.S. retail products are labeled as having zero grams of trans fat, Kirstie Foster, a spokeswoman, said today in an e-mail.

“I can’t tell you the last time I bought crackers or cookies, you name it, that I even saw any trans fat,” Brian Yarbrough, an analyst for Edward Jones & Co. in St. Louis, said today in an interview. “It’s a positive from the standpoint of consumers, as trans fats are obviously bad for your health, but for investors and the companies I don’t know it changes much.”

Trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe”, according to a tentative determination published today by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The decision, while not yet final, would lead to regulations that prevent food companies from using the ingredient.

ConAgra Foods Inc. has removed trans fat from products such as Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

“We took steps to remove partially hydrogenated oils from many foods in our portfolio years ago,” she said. “We look forward to learning more about the FDA proposal.”

Hydrogenated Oils

It won’t have much impact “on quick-service restaurants, most of which use limited amounts of trans fats and hydrogenated oils,” Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Chicago-based restaurant researcher Technomic Inc., said in an interview. “I don’t think it’s a big issue.”

The FDA’s ruling may force companies to clean up the rest of their portfolios faster than they may have planned. Burger King Worldwide Inc. (BKW)’s breaded chicken patties and molten fudge bites have partially hydrogenated oils, according to the company’s website.

Cinnabon Delights

Yum! Brands Inc. (YUM)’s KFC sells BBQ baked beans, mashed potatoes, gravy and some dipping sauces, such as fiery buffalo wings, with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils also can be found in caramel apple empanadas, Cinnabon delights and green tomatillo sauce at Yum’s Taco Bell.

The FDA began requiring food companies to include trans fats on their labels in 2006 after more than a decade of pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based health advocacy group. Consumers began turning away from foods with the fats soon after, the agency said.

New York City in 2006 began a ban on trans fats in restaurants, and California followed suit in 2008.

General Mills declined 1.5 percent to $50.40 at the close in New York.

Source: Bloomberg