– leading the tfX campaign in the UK
OLIVER TICKELL, who founded tfX, the campaign against trans fats in the UK, is both encouraged and disappointed.
He is encouraged that consumer awareness in the UK about the dangers of trans fats has risen significantly in the past few years, ever since he launched the tfx.org.uk website in February 2004.
“Three or four years ago, British consumers hadn’t the foggiest idea about trans fats,” Oliver Tickell says. “Today, most consumers probably know that trans fats are bad, even if they may not understand why.
“The message about the harm of trans fats has basically gotten through,” says Oliver Tickell, an Oxford-based freelance journalist with special interest in health and environmental issues.
Oliver Tickell remains, however, disappointed — in fact, he is alarmed — with what he mildly describes as “the detachment of government and regulatory authorities from public health.”
“Government agencies have no accountability to the public,” Oliver Tickell complains. “The Food Standards Agency is more accountable to the food industry than to the people.
“The government is only loosely accountable to the people. It’s like the case with the war in Iraq. Nobody wanted Britain to go to war, but the government went ahead anyway. It shows how feeble democracy is. Coming from a nation with a strong tradition of democracy, the feeling is not very nice.”
On the bright side, Oliver Tickell finds British supermarkets to be much closer to the people than the government. Oliver Tickell describes British supermarkets as being “fantastic in cleaning up their act” to remove trans fats from their house brand products.
“All of the movement against trans fats has been led by consumers and players in the industry — the media, supermarkets and the multiple retailers as well as progressive food manufacturers and processors,” Oliver Tickell reports.
Oliver Tickell on supermarkets
Marks & Spencer, one of Britain’s biggest supermarket and department store chain, triggered the movement when it announce that it would remove trans fats from its products by mid-2006. Waitrose, another supermarket chain, followed suit soon after.
Other major supermarket chains – Sainsbury, Tesco and Asda – announced in August 2006 that they would remove trans fats in their house brand products by the end of the year, or by early 2007.
“The supermarkets’ initiative has had a strong influence on branded products,” Oliver Tickell notes. “Typically, branded products are more expensive than house brand products and so they have to maintain a perception of quality, including the quality of ingredients used.
“Every time I go to the supermarkets, I find something new, I find a product that has trans fat previously but is now trans fat free. Things are happening very fast,” Oliver Tickell adds. Oliver Tickell is so optimistic about the situation regarding trans fats in the UK that he feels any law to require trans fat labelling might be redundant.
So far, the UK government has been reluctant to legislate compulsory trans fat labelling. In fact, Oliver Tickell reveals that the law, which applies throughout the European Union, is currently quite “strangely” worded such that even if companies wish to voluntarily declare the trans fat content, they may not be allowed to do so.
“The law states that you cannot declare the quantity of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts Label unless you make a claim about it, such as ‘low in trans fats’ or even ‘high in trans fats’, and then it is compulsory. The whole thing is so confusing that few manufacturers have bothered labelling trans fats at all.
“But now I think there is no need to formulate a trans fat labelling law,” Oliver Tickell continues. “By the time such a law is formulated, there might not be any trans fats in packaged products left to be declared,” Oliver Tickell says.
A big gap
Still, there remains a big gap. Food served in fast food restaurants, schools, cafeterias, hospitals, old age homes, pubs, fish and chips outlets and other places continue to be prepared with hydrogenated oils containing trans fats.
“These are huge sectors that continue to be left out and consumers never know if they are taking trans fats,” Oliver Tickell points out.
He is therefore pushing for a complete ban on trans fats, rather than just trans fat labelling.
“The experience of the packaged foods industry – and the experience of Denmark which has banned trans fats – show that trans fats can be removed from the food chain quite easily, at no cost to the public purse and without consumers having to pay higher prices,” Oliver Tickell says.
“The expertise is already there. It can be done.”
A trans fat ban in the UK?
And it might well be done.
In January 2007, the tfX website carried an unconfirmed news report from Scotland Sunday newspaper that the British government was planning to make trans fats illegal.
Scotland on Sunday said it “can reveal that ministers have finally lost patience with the food industry’s continuing failure to remove trans fats voluntarily. Talks are under way between the Food Standards Agency and Department of Health on measures leading up to a ban. British food firms are only likely to avoid a legal ban if they make a rapid and concerted attempt to drastically reduce trans fat levels or remove them altogether.”
The newspaper quoted a senior Department of Health source saying the issue had not been given priority in the past but it was now determined to tackle the problem.
He said: “We are already at the forefront of moves to get better labelling of trans fats in the EU, but you can expect more action from us in future months at home. Labelling is a start, but the government is prepared to look at all proactive options leading up to a total ban.”
Oliver Tickell was quoted in the report saying:
“The government’s stance so far has been quite extraordinarily hopeless. Ministers have admitted that there are health risks associated with these products, but they have claimed that they want to focus on the dangers posed by saturated fats instead.
“I agree that saturated fats are dangerous, but a government should be able to tackle more than one threat at a time. If they are going to act, any movement would be welcome.”
About Oliver Tickell
This article about Oliver Tickell was the result of a telephone interview with him at end-Janaury 2007.
Oliver Tickell reveals during the interview that he had always known hydrogenated oils to be “bad news’ although he did not initially know why.
“It was long since I studied chemistry,” says Oliver Tickell, who graduated from Britain’s prestigious Oxford University with a degree in Physics.”
“The more I found out, the more shocking it was. I found out that trans fats were really bad, and that hydrogenated oils are everywhere.
“And since I knew how to build websites, I thought I would build one about trans fats to heighten consumer awareness. That was in early 2004. I added one page after another and, before I knew it, I had built quite a substantial website on trans fats.
Oliver Tickell has always been a campaigner on health and environment. He has also built a website ont the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming, as well as a website for James Lovelock, PhD, originator of the Gaia Theory that views the Earth as a giant, living, superorganism.