WASHINGTON -- There will be no grace period for trans fats.
The Food and Drug Administration will begin enforcing its new trans fats labeling rule as soon as it takes effect Jan. 1, officials at the agency said.
The rule requires manufacturers to include their products' trans fat content on Nutrition Facts panels. (Products without a significant amount will still have to have a footnote on the panel saying so.)
The rule has been the subject of confusion among manufacturers as to whether products manufactured before Jan. 1 would be exempt, as is the case with the law requiring food allergens to be stated on packaging.
For Rick Moller, senior vice president of category management at Tree of Life, the question facing distributors like his are, "At what point next year do we really have to start watching who's coming in the building?"
But representatives with the FDA's office of nutritional products, labeling and dietary supplements said in an interview that the rule applies to products that have been "introduced into interstate commerce" on or after Jan. 1, regardless of when they were manufactured.
"The law becomes effective on Jan. 1, and if they have products that do not have correct labeling, we would say those products would be out of compliance," one of the representatives, who asked to be unnamed, told SN.
Manufacturers may request a waiver asking for more time to comply, as the FDA permitted them to do when it began requiring folic acid content to be added to cereal product labels. The guidelines to request a waiver haven't been issued.
The FDA rep said field investigators will enforce the trans fat rule as the agency does other food regulations, through routine and complaint-triggered inspections of manufacturing firms. If violations are found, the FDA could send warning letters, seize products, and in the case of imports, detain them at the port of entry. Such actions will target manufacturers, not distributors or retailers.
"The responsible party is whatever firm is identified on the label," the rep said.
Trans fats, commonly found in vegetable shortenings, cookies, crackers, snack foods and salad dressings, are believed to increase LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and lower HDL, or "good" cholesterol.
Since the trans fat rule came out in July 2003, big packaged goods manufacturers, from PepsiCo's Frito-Lay snack division to Kraft to Gorton's, have been stripping trans fats from their products.
Compliance problems seem more likely to arise with small and specialty packaged goods makers who are limited in their ability to keep abreast of regulatory changes and whose products don't turn as fast as mass-marketed foods do.
Ron Tanner, a vice president at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, said specialty suppliers know about the label requirement, but may not know the trigger is different from that of the allergens requirement. The NASFT is urging members to update their labels now to avoid being stuck with outdated product labels come Jan. 1.
"Our concern is that retailers may pull products off the shelves and want to send them back," he said.
Brian Todd, president of the Food Institute, said some retailers have decided to require that deliveries be compliant as of Jan. 1, to the chagrin of some manufacturers.
Tree of Life has been telling suppliers that it wouldn't accept products with old labels after September, Moller said.
It may be in retailers' best interest to make sure their inventory is up to date on Jan. 1. "At some point, it'll be a story in the media," Moller said. And then, consumers will be more likely to question the presence of outdated labels, he said.