With obesity rates skyrocketing across the world, the global finger-pointing match has begun in earnest as governments, healthcare organisations and charities try to make sense of one of the world’s most alarming and insidious health threats.

With the world’s clinically obese population (currently at 400m) projected to swell to 700m by 2015, many of the pointed fingers are coming to rest on the fast food industry, citing a lack of transparency on nutritional content, unrealistic portion sizes, marketing targeted directly at children and processing practices that some see as misleading. But in a global fast food culture, where does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility begin?

“Western consumer society must ask tough questions of itself before jumping to indict restaurant chains.”

The war on trans fats

Trans fat, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, is acknowledged to be one of the worst sources of fat. A statement by the Mayo Clinic in the US explains its “double-barrelled impact on cholesterol levels”: “Unlike other fatty acids, trans fat both raises your ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol.”

Despite the health drawbacks, trans fats have been commonly used in the food processing industry due to their ability to preserve food for longer and their cheapness when compared to natural fats. But due to its nutritional worthlessness and inherent health risks, health organisations around the world have been working with the fast food industry to limit its use.

In some countries, governments have been so concerned about the health implications of the use of trans fat that they have introduced direct legislation to limit or ban it. In March 2003, Denmark became the first country to introduce nationwide regulation on trans fats, limiting trans fat to no more than 2% of oils for human consumption. Switzerland followed suit in April 2008, introducing regulation mirroring that of Denmark.

However, the majority of action taken against trans fat has not involved governmental intervention on a national level, rather a mix of local government action, collaboration with health charities and self-regulation. In the US, it has been down to state and city authorities to regulate its use. In New York City, an unsuccessful attempt to get fast food restaurants to limit trans fat voluntarily was followed by an outright ban in 2006, the first of its kind in the US. The ruling was followed by other bans in Philadelphia, Montgomery County in Maryland and California, which became the first US state to ban trans fats in January 2010.

This patchwork process might seem destined to fail, but a recent study suggested otherwise. New findings by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health in July 2010 showed that the US fast food chains McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen had all reduced trans fat content to almost zero since 1997. “While it took time for major fast food chains to decrease trans fats in their foods, I’m pleased to see that they have done it. I’m also pleased to see that they haven’t raised levels of saturated fats to replace trans fats,” said Lisa Harnack Ph.D., an associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and director of the Nutrition Coordinating Center.

“Taco Bell has responded with a storm of publicity to defend its beef products.”

Taco Bell: where’s the beef?

One area where national governments have been willing to act is in setting a legal framework for the actual content of fast food. In the US, these standards are set by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). These standards affect the fast food industry in that misrepresenting the contents of fast food products for advertising or marketing purposes would leave chains open to prosecution.

The most recent example of this is the consumer rights class action lawsuit that was filed on 21 January this year against US Tex-Mex chain Taco Bell. According to the lawsuit, filed by Alabama law firm Beasley Allen, the chain’s assertion that it serves “seasoned ground beef” as filling in some of its products is misleading consumers, as the company is alleged to use a level of other substances that puts the products below the minimum USDA requirements to be classed as ground beef. If the lawsuit is successful, Taco Bell would have to re-label the relevant products as containing “taco meat filling” and launch a publicity campaign to inform consumers about the actual content of their beef products.

At the crux of the case will be the levels of filler substances like yeast extract, corn starch and so-called “isolated oat product”, which means, alleges the lawsuit, that there is less than 35% actual ground beef in the tacos. “This product does not qualify to be considered ‘ground beef’ and many of the ‘seasoning’ ingredients are in fact binders, fillers and coloring,” says Beasley Allen attorney Dee Miles. “These ingredients increase the overall volume of this product, reducing the actual ‘beef’ content per serving. It is against the law in this country to take someone’s money for a product that is misrepresented. This lawsuit seeks to put a stop to that type of conduct and practice.”

“Trans fat is acknowledged to be one of the worst sources of fat.”

Taco Bell has responded with a storm of publicity to defend its beef products. The company states that the lawsuit’s claims are “bogus”, reiterating that the company’s seasoned beef contains 88% USDA-inspected beef, and that any added ingredients are included purely to improve the products’ “taste, texture and moisture”. In fact, Taco Bell’s president Greg Creed has signalled the company’s intention to counter-sue “for making false statements about our products”.

With such contradictory claims, it remains to be seen which side of this conflict is closer to the truth, but the Taco Bell lawsuit could be seen as indicative of poor processing and preparation standards across the fast food industry.

However, Western consumer society must ask tough questions of itself before jumping to indict restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell. In a fast food culture that demands speed, low costs and an equivalent dining experience across thousands of branches of a restaurant chain, these industrial processes might be the only solution that fits the bill, despite the sacrifice on quality. If we expect inexpensive restaurants to combine fresh, local, unprocessed produce at the same price, with the same taste and served with the same speed, we have to ask ourselves if we are demanding too much.