With the unanimous Board of Health vote to ban trans fat in New York yesterday the city has become the second in the nation to require restaurants to eliminate the use of the artificial ingredient in their foods. Tiburon on San Francisco Bay -- a slightly smaller metropolis -- beat the Big Apple to it in 2004. (The other NYC Board of Health proposal approved today will require restaurant chains operating in the city to post calorie content on menu boards. Might make you think twice about a 1,110 calorie Mickey D's Vanilla Triple Shake.)
At the public hearing on these two proposals on October 30, a diverse cross-section of New Yorkers from academic institutions such as Columbia University's Medical Center to public health centers such as the Institute for Urban Family Health to community organizations crammed a meeting hall to voice their nearly unanimous support of both proposals.
In the snaking security line on the way to the hearing, I overhead a woman explaining to her neighbor: "You can find trans fats in Parkay, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, in most cookies..." Her list went on and on and on and on. Trans fat -- as the woman, who is a prominent public health advocate in the city, was trying to convey -- are everywhere, we just don't see them, rarely realize when we're eating them.
It didn't used to be this way. Trans fats were developed in the 1940s, in a process through which vegetable oil is hydrogenated, converting unsaturated fatty acids into saturated ones. (If you see "partially hydrogenated" on an ingredients list, that's trans fat). In processed foods, trans fats replace naturally occurring solid fats like butter and liquid oils.
Trans fats became popular with industry because they enable products to sit on shelves longer. The other winning element? They can be less expensive than other fats traditionally used in baking. By the 1960s, trans fats had become ubiquitous in baked products and fast foods. They've been with us ever since.
Today, most of our dietary trans fat intake comes in the form of cakes, cookies, crackers, and bread as well as French fries, potato chips and popcorn. Restaurants are another major source. And while the government now requires trans fats be listed on nutritional labels, restaurants have no such required transparency.
So what's the trouble with trans fats? For several decades the evidence has been accumulating. The results are pretty damning.
Testifying at the public hearing, Dr. Walter Willett, whose team at the Harvard School of Public Health has been at the leading edge of this research, reminded the council members, the TV news crews, and the hundreds gathered that trans fats are known to increase coronary heart disease, one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Currently, 12.5 million Americans have the disease, with half a million dying every year from it, according to the USDA.
As even the FDA acknowledges, consumption of trans fat raises low-density lipoprotein, or "bad cholesterol" levels, which increases the risk of the disease. Based on more than two decades of study of more than 200,000 participants, Willett and his colleagues estimate that trans fat consumption is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths annually from coronary heart disease.
In a recent report from The Netherlands, researchers suggest that eliminating trans fat in the U.S. could avert between 72,000 and 228,000 coronary heart "events" -- as they call them -- each year.
In his testimony, Willett's colleague Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian added that trans fats increase inflammation -- a risk factor for diabetes, among other ailments -- and are linked to weight gain. Even more troubling are findings that even very low levels of consumption can lead to higher risk: consuming just 5 grams of trans fat -- that's roughly 2 percent of your daily calories and just under the average 5.8 grams of trans fat we Americans consume -- can increase your risk of heart disease by 25 percent. (It is precisely these health concerns that led Denmark in 2004 to ban trans fats use in the country).
As these studies show, the trouble with trans fats is now well-documented. There is no longer cause for debate, but this isn't to say there's no debate. Industry is still working overtime to confuse the public. Consider this claim on one industry-backed website, Trans Fat Facts: "Trans fats have been a staple in the American diet for decades. And during that time, American life expectancy has seen dramatic increases. In fact, it recently reached a record high." It seems the authors missed the statistics lesson on causal relationships.
With all the sound science, maybe we should be asking why not ban trans fats? That's just what many people are doing.
At the hearing, 53 people spoke in support of the ban, from a steely-voiced octogenarian, Florence Rice, president of the Harlem Consumer Education Council to a six-year-old who asked the Board to please help her "stay healthy," and "out of the hospital." In total, the Department received 2,266 public comments, 95 percent were in support of the ban. Across the street from the official hearing, a public rally organized by volunteers of the Trans Fat Free NYC network included trans fat free treats and speeches from a local restaurateur, Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science and the Public Interest, a provider of trans fat free oils to the restaurant industry, and yours truly.
At the hearing, those opposed to the ban included representatives from restaurant associations and the founder of CLASH, the organization formed to fight the ultimately losing battle against the New York City smoking ban.
Their chorus? In part, the ban will be bad for business. They said that it would be impossible for businesses to comply; there's simply not enough supply. They also warned that mom and pops would be hurt worst.
Brooklyn-born Ina "Breakfast Queen of Chicago" Pinkney and the "mom" of her Chicago-based restaurant, Ina's, begged to differ. She found it easy to replace trans fats with alternatives. Pinkney added that as a small business owner this kind of policy is exactly what she wants.
"We welcome these regulations," she said. "It levels the playing field."
The other industry complaint? It's "Big Brother" all over again, just one more inch down the slippery slope toward a "food nanny" police state. The industry funded ConsumerFreedom.com even called Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden a "diet dictator." A FoxNews opinion piece about the ban posed the question this way: "Should the government regulate what we eat?"
But that's actually not the question the resolution really raises. Sure, the government shouldn't dictate whether or not we can devour a Krispy Kreme donut. But the government most certainly should protect its citizens from unnecessary artificial added ingredients in our food --which are invisible to us, are undetectable to our tongues, and harm us. The government also must certainly protect children who are even less equipped to make informed choices about the food they eat.
Indeed, that is precisely what we expect our government to do. When we find out about contaminants in food that cause harm -- take E. coli O157:H7 for instance -- we expect the government to step in, and step in fast on the side of public health.
In a similar way, the proposed ban on trans fats isn't regulating what we can or can't eat; it is simply helping rid our food system of an ingredient that has been shown to cause thousands of premature deaths each year.
The other industry theme song is that these kinds of decisions should be voluntary, not government mandated. But although the food industry is savvy about getting media mileage on bold announcements to voluntarily ban trans fats, with no laws requiring accountability, their claims have tended to be mere smoke and mirrors.
As public health attorney Michele Simon, who documents just this kind of industry spin in her book Appetite for Profit, explained to me: "Take McDonald's, for instance: When McDonald's announced in 2002 that it was removing trans fat from their cooking oil, the story got extensive positive coverage in major national newspapers. Yet, four years, and a lawsuit later, McDonald's still hasn't followed through on the promise."
Simon continues, "We need more government agencies to pass laws to require companies to do the right thing. That's the way real change happens."
This resolution is a part of doing just that. It's not a draconian Big Brother move, but government taking leadership to protect the public health.
The question isn't "Should the government regulate what we eat?" But, "Shouldn't the government protect us from harm?" And the answer is, yes.
A final industry grumble, and a corollary to the Big Brother complaint, is that such bans limit "choice;" they're an affront to our "freedom." Wrote one commentator: this kind of ban is a "push to legally prevent individuals from having a French fry 'their way.'"
But how many New Yorkers, or anyone else in the country for that matter, asked for trans fats? Or, even knows when they're eating them? We, the consumer, didn't demand trans fats. They were invented to increase shelf life of food products in order to increase profitability for the food industry.
Real choice and real food freedom means being able to eat out without worrying that the choice will be harmful to our health. This policy will help all New Yorkers do just that and, now passed, the rest of the country might just take New York City's lead.
The Bush administration has just announced cuts of an estimated $100 million to one of our most critical aid initiatives: helping the poor and hungry around the world feed themselves. Despite enough food produced in the world to make us all chubby, the United Nations recently announced that hunger is on the rise again. Already more than one in seven people in the world go hungry.
Addressing hunger's root causes has never been more urgent.
The administration blames this cutback on unavoidable budget belt-tightening, but the excuse is hard to swallow. This administration has always been able to come up with resources for food and agriculture – only not for poor farmers in other countries, but for the richest in ours.
The figures aren't yet in for 2004, but assuming the past years' pattern holds, a total of $68.3 billion will have been given away in domestic farm subsidies since President Bush came into office, according to research by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit.
That comes to more than 600 times the announced aid cut.
Since 1995, the top ten percent of our nation's largest farms have received nearly three-quarters of these federal subsidies. For the bottom 80 percent of U.S. producers who received subsidies, their average was just $768 per year. Two-thirds of our nation's farmers get no subsidies at all.
But here's the double scrooge: Our agricultural subsidies at home directly undercut the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers abroad who can't compete against them.
All this does make sense, though. Since the presidential elections in 2000, agribusiness has lavished 72 percent of its campaign contributions to the Republican Party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research organization, with their contributions in the past three election cycles adding up to nearly $114 million.
Those five to seven million people in developing countries who aid workers estimate will be directly hurt by these cuts probably didn't contribute quite as much.
The United States is by far the largest donor to the United Nations food programs, as Elizabeth Becker notes in her recent New York Times article about these cuts. That sounds generous, but U.S. foreign aid as a percent of GNP lags well behind other industrial countries.
It's not that the American people don't want their country to share the wealth. Polls show Americans believe we are giving away 20 percent of our GNP in foreign aid (or 143 times more than we actually give in official development assistance). They think 10 percent would be about right. So, given the facts, Americans would support a large increase in our giving.
President Bush's choice to cut this particular aid is tragically short-sighted. Throughout the world, people increasingly perceive America as isolated, out of touch with the suffering of others. Now is the time when the administration must demonstrate we understand that helping create strong, self-reliant communities is essential in finding our way beyond fanaticism and violence to security and democracy at home and abroad.
If not, Santa, I fear, will zoom right past the White House.
I thought it only fair to begin an article on responsible clothing with a little personal audit. Let's see -- my Kookai jacket doesn't say where it was made, but the label's Chinese characters are a dead giveaway. My British Karen Millen pants -- purchased in a jet-lagged delusion before remembering one dollar does not equal one pound -- say "Made in Cyprus." My "Silver Woman" cowboy-inspired shirt was a Goodwill purchase and doesn't seem to have a label; and my tattered cotton tank-top's label is long since gone.
So, am I wearing sweatshop-made clothes? Probably. But how can I know for sure?
I set out to ask folks who made "Kathie Lee Gifford" and "sweatshop" household words a simple question -- or what I thought would be a simple question: Whose clothes should we buy? With over 80 percent of consumers now saying they are willing to pay more for products made under "good" conditions, my sense is a lot of people would like to know the answer.
Turning that desire into action seems more pressing than ever. The garment industry, spreading across 200 countries, employs as many as 10 million people and is renowned for labor rights abuses and workplace injuries. In the U.S., the industry is not necessarily much better. The Department of Labor itself estimates that roughly 65 percent of the 5,000 garment shops in Los Angeles do not comply with U.S. labor laws.
Unfortunately, unlike "fair-trade certified" products, we have no one-stop label to be sure our clothes are made "sweat-free." Today, we can buy fair-trade certified coffee (or tea, bananas, or chocolate) and know we are supporting democratically run cooperatives and ensuring farmers get a fair price. But clothes, which cost more than our morning lattes, have no equivalent guarantee. The Fair Labor Association -- a nonprofit monitoring organization -- is developing a certification process, but even its certification will only ensure that a 5 percent random sampling of a company's factories audited are "sweat-free."
A big obstacle is the structure of the industry. Difficult to automate, clothing manufacturing still relies almost entirely on the human touch: hands at machines sewing fabric. Because clothing is often made piecemeal -- a sleeve here, a zipper there -- the work is also mostly subcontracted and mobile, further confounding monitors and human rights advocates.
"It is challenging to find out where the factories are, let alone to regulate them," Dara O'Rourke told me from his offices at U.C. Berkeley, where he researches the labor and environmental practices of companies producing garments, footwear, electronics, and more. Global companies like The Gap, he explained, typically subcontract with as many as 5,000 factories in 50 countries.
"It is the structure of the business," O'Rourke explained, "that is driving conditions downward. Even firms with reputations as good corporate citizens, or environmentally sound," O'Rourke said, "often disclose nothing about where or how their goods are produced. The vast majority refuse to publish the names or locations of their factories or allow independent groups to look into them," O'Rourke told me. "Right now it's virtually impossible for me to say whether one company is a "good" company or not."
If you don't mind point-and-click shopping, a few new companies do offer union-made or "sweat-free" guarantees: Maggie's Functional Organics, SweatX, American Apparel, and NoSweatShop.com to name a few. You can also choose to shop local where you know who you're buying from personally.
With these few exceptions, being a responsible shopper goes beyond a "do buy" list. It's not just about our shopping choices; it's using our power as citizens to transform a flawed system -- making conscious choices together. Thankfully, the ways to do so have never been clearer.
Hey Harvard, Who Made Your Boxers?
First, we can take a lesson from the kids...$3 billion a year, that's the annual sales in collegiate apparel. Sure, it's only a fraction of the global industry, but it's still, well, $3 billion! Since the mid-1990s, students in the U.S. and Canada have been pushing their universities to support fair labor through their purchases of everything with a school logo, from baseball caps to boxers. Founded in 1998, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) already has 350 affiliate campuses and has signed on 120 schools with their monitoring partner, the Worker Rights Consortium.
Today almost every campus has a "code of conduct" for its garment production, for which USAS takes much credit. And it has now expanded its efforts to support living wage campaigns and union drives across the globe.
"The anti-sweatshop student movement has changed the climate around these issues," says Tom Hayden, past California assemblyman and state senator. "We ought to take advantage of that climate to make changes on the policy level." And that's exactly what Hayden and thousands of others are doing around the country.
The Power of Procurement
In a landmark measure just before Arnie won the recall, California Governor Gray Davis signed SB 578, a law prohibiting the state of California from buying anything that was produced under sweatshop conditions. "It's essentially saying that California expenditures reflect our state labor policy," says Sophia Heller, legislative aid in State Senator Richard Alarcón's office. "It's putting our money where our mouth is."
If you think school buying is big, imagine the scale of government purchasing. This law applies to all state purchases -- from highway patrol uniforms to office furniture and computers. And there's ongoing citizen power enlisted in this bill's enforcement: A state-sponsored website will list pending bids for contracts so organizations like Sweatshop Watch and other community groups can alert the agency when a bidder or a sub-contractor is a known sweatshop.
But don't think this is just a kooky California fad. Popping up across the country are parallel purchasing policies. Dan Hennefeld, director of Uniform Procurement at UNITE, the union representing apparel, textile, and related industry workers, told me similar laws have passed in New York City, Boston, and Milwaukee and the states of New Jersey and Maine all within the last few years.
Unions: The Anti-Sweatshop Guarantee
Procurement policy is one way to change the system. I asked Adam Neiman, CEO of NoSweatShop.com, a union-made apparel company, what would be another crucial mechanism, his answer was clear: unions. "Not that many generations ago, garment workers here in our country sent their workers to college," Neiman said. "The U.S. and Europe got very wealthy, and we wouldn't have done it without unions. Maybe that's exactly what's needed in the developing world -- what worked here." When I suggested some socially responsible businesses argue they don't need unions, they live their values, Neiman responded: "This is business. There should be a contract, not a handshake. If you're so righteous, put it in writing."
Supporting unions is also key, because they're contagious. Neiman explained: "If you just have a great factory run by a great manager, all workers elsewhere can hope for is that a job opens there for them." If you have a union, it can inspire workers in neighboring factories to form their own.
One of the best examples is the recent success of the Korean-owned Kukdong factory in Atlixco, Mexico. In 2001, workers there submitted a complaint to the Workers' Rights Consortium about egregious rights violations. With the help of the U.S. student movement and activists at organizations like Sweatshop Watch, the 1,200 workers at Kukdong, producing for Nike and Reebok among other brand names, organized and formed one of the first independent unions for garment workers in Mexico. Those workers have already won their second contract and are helping organize workers in the same state.
Fairly Grown, Fairly Made
Shopping with the whole world in mind means we think not only about how our clothes were made -- but what they're made of. As Chris Treter of Organic Consumers Association (OCA) says, "There are sweatshops in the factories and the fields."
Treter directs the "Clothes for a Change" campaign at OCA, a nonprofit public interest organization with 90,000 volunteers on its rolls. The campaign has already signed on American Apparel, a sweatshop-free clothing company with a factory in downtown Los Angeles which has launched a "sustainable edition" that includes six different styles made from 100 percent certified organic cotton. The campaign is also a big supporter of Maggie's Functional Organics whose 100 percent organic products are produced by a women-run cooperative in Nicaragua.
Bena Burdna, the CEO of Maggie's, says buying organic cotton is particularly important because it's the second most pesticide-dependent crop in the world (tobacco is first), accounting for 10 percent of global pesticide use and 25 percent of insecticides.
The impact of choosing organic clothing goes well beyond the environmental benefits -- it's a matter of life and death. According to Treter, in the U.S. alone, 10,000 farm workers and people in surrounding communities die every year from pesticide exposure.
So why hasn't organic clothing taken off? "Consumer demand isn't there...yet," Treter said. I wonder if that would be true if all of us knew what Treter knows: To make just one cotton T-shirt uses one-third of a pound of agricultural chemicals. I think about what Burdna said: "Your skin is your biggest organ and it breathes." I look at my cotton tank-top with new eyes.
We Have the Power
In the face of global supply chains and distant decision makers, any one of us can feel like such a tiny piece of the puzzle. But people who are seeing real change -- Kukdong workers, anti-sweatshop students, organic activists -- remind us of our power. And more of us are doing something. In one recent study, half of Americans reported that they "punished" a company in the last year for "bad social performance." Nikki Bas from Sweatshop Watch has seen the impact firsthand. "We were involved for almost four years in the Saipan campaign [against The Gap]. A lot of what we asked consumers to do was write letters and protest, and the company eventually settled."
"There is no question that if you write a letter, send an e-mail, make a phone call," Bjorn Skorpen Claeson from SweatFree Communities, a national network of local anti-sweatshop campaigns, echoed, "[the companies] know there are hundreds more like you out there. It's really important that you tell yourself you make a difference and not bury your conscience."
I think back to my personal clothing audit. I'm definitely not a poster child for sweatshop-free clothes. But I now see ways to be part of changing the norms, values, and structures so that someday the question of what companies we should buy from will be irrelevant as all clothes will be sweatshop-free.
Anna Lappé is the co-author of Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. This story originally published by Dragonfly Media.