The War on Trans-Fats

An emblem of the arrogance of central planning that characterizes the Obama administration.


Having failed to enact stricter gun control measures or oust the dictator of Syria, Bashar Assad, the Obama administration is going after a new target — margarine.

Here's hoping that those yellow sticks of Fleischmann's and Mother's manage, somehow, to fend off the Food and Drug Administration.

Personally, I've long since switched to extra virgin olive oil on my bagels, and either Earth Balance buttery sticks or butter for baking. But as someone who grew up eating margarine, the notion that the federal government is preparing officially to ban it, as the FDA recently announced, strikes me both as truly bizarre and emblematic of the arrogance of central planning that characterizes the Obama administration.

The FDA says the "trans fat" in old-fashioned margarine causes heart attacks. But plenty of other things also cause heart attacks that the Obama administration has not yet prepared to ban. Television causes heart attacks by encouraging sitting around on the couch and watching it rather than exercising. Cigarettes cause heart attacks. The Burger King Triple Whopper Sandwich meal will give you a heart attack. Too much Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream will give you a heart attack.

Yet the FDA has it in for margarine, not for hot fudge sundaes or television or even Triple Whoppers, all of which would, under the FDA's proposed action, remain legally available for sale, unlike margarine. Perhaps if the effort to legalize marijuana continues to succeed, newly out-of-work drug dealers can repurpose themselves as black-market margarine pushers. Or perhaps margarine-craving Americans will be left to smuggle the stuff in themselves while returning from overseas trips. Perhaps consumers will resort to purchasing margarine illicitly over the Internet, like re-imported prescription drugs from Canada or tax-free cigarettes from Indian reservations.

Beyond the inconsistency of it, there's the failure to accommodate individual preferences. Margarine use in my family was a consequence in part of the Jewish religious prohibition on mixing milk and meat. If you wanted a baked potato with your steak or a chocolate chip cookie for dessert, using margarine rather than butter was the kosher approach. Other margarine consumers may be vegans for philosophical reasons involving animal rights.

And different people may choose different approaches to managing their heart attack risks. Some people may exercise daily, see their cardiologist regularly, take cholesterol-lowering medication, and avoid egg yolks, fried food, or fatty meat — yet still want some margarine in their Thanksgiving pie crust once a year. Other people may avoid margarine, but live sedentary lifestyles, never go to the doctor, not take their medicine, and otherwise take plenty of health risks. Just as the trans-fat ban fails to accommodate religious or philosophical differences, it also fails to accommodate individual choices when it comes to overall health decisions.

In researching the war on margarine, I discovered it turns out to have a long history. As Adam Young reported in a 2002 article in The Freeman, the Federal Margarine Act of 1886, passed at the behest of the dairy industry, imposed a tax on margarine and also annual license fees for margarine wholesalers and retailers. State laws, under the guise of fraud prevention, banned coloring margarine to make it look like butter. At the height of the frenzy, oleomargarine bootleggers ended up in federal prison, Katherine Mangu-Ward reported in Reason.

It looks as if we are about to come full circle. Stock up now at your local supermarket and put enough in the freezer to last until we get an administration with the sense to leave this kind of bread-and-butter issue to individual choice.