Thailand became the first country in South East Asia to implement a ban on trans fats back in 2019, a move that was well-received by most food and beverage brands in the country, and earning significant praise from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its process and proactiveness.
Four years on, researchers at Thailand’s Mahidol University Institute for Population and Social Research have analysed the implementation and follow-up of the trans-fats elimination policy – and although the initial enforcement started with a bang, it appears that the follow-up has not been quite as stellar.
The researchers employed a case study approach to study the policy, using qualitative research methods including a policy triangle framework, a documentary review, and in-depth interviews with 20 stakeholders from government, academia, civil society organisations and the food industry. All participant identities were anonymised.
According to their findings, several study participants believed that the government had opted to impose the ban on trans fats (or partially hydrogenated oils [PHOs], a common type of trans fat) because there was considerable consumer hype around trans fats at the time – but after enforcement, further action was lacking.
“One major driving force attributed to the PHO ban being adopted in Thailand was the political economy of TFA elimination,” said the study authors.
“While the ban fulfilled the government’s political interest in responding to the domestic hype and global efforts to eliminate TFAs, it also fulfilled the trade interests of the food industry in domestic food governance and global trade.
“[That said], our findings reveal that the perceived implementation gaps addressed by the policy actors include policy continuity and consumer engagement - many felt that there should be further post-monitoring [and consumer awareness] activities put in place.”
According to the study, many participants highlighted a lack of actions taken by the government after the policymaking process, which was also described as a precursor of policy failure as has been seen in other countries implementing other food legislation.
“A lack of continuity has been noted as an issue in the implementation of food and nutrition policies in many countries, such as Colombia and Spain [and while] in Thailand, the government has secured TFA elimination policy continuity by legislating it into law, this does not guarantee any further research or budget support for post-marketing activities,” the authors added.
“[This is a significant issue] as TFA analysis is highly technical, so the role of consumers in eliminating it has been limited, [opening them up to] misinterpretation of information or food safety issues if monitoring is not well-done.
“TFA labelling and any related claims are not allowed in Thailand, avoiding impacts of the halo effect (when one trait of the product is used to make an overall judgment of its health or nutritional benefits), but this does not eliminate the need for proper consumer engagement.
“So in order to achieve TFA elimination in Thailand, the government needs to adopt a comprehensive approach by raising consumer awareness of TFAs and also strengthening the enforcement mechanisms to ensure policy continuity.”
No reason to be hopeful?
Despite these recommendations, it remains doubtful as to whether the Thai government will be willing to put more money and effort into post-policy marketing, especially when budgeting constraints and red tape come into play.
“[The government seems to feel] TFA elimination is already finished - [In fact], one government representative reported that further actions on TFA elimination might not be necessary because ‘many issues can be proposed, but it might not be feasible or cost-effective because it cannot do anything much,” said the authors.
“[This is in contrast to] academic opinion, where it was remarked that there has been a good ascending phase, meaning the policy was issued, but that ‘[…] for the implementation. […] I do not see how the industry reformulated or how the enforcement was carried out’.
“Another participant reported that ‘they have the budget, but there are so many missions’, [so things are still uncertain].”
It was further stressed that the food and beverage industry also has a role to play in making more voluntary changes when it comes to TFA elimination as well as raising consumer awareness.
“[One area that has not been maximised] has been in the food industry - Some participants in the policy sector believe that the food industry has the capacity to make voluntary changes, especially ‘local oil manufacturers’ as they can ‘solve problems by using palm oils or blended oils to reduce trans fats’,” they added.
“However, multinational companies (not named) were also mentioned that are reluctant to make changes ‘unless a law is legislated’ so regulation is still important here.