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Low-Fat ODF

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so betwixt them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean!

Is dietary fat good? Or is it bad? Without getting into a discussion of saturated versus unsaturated fats, or the virtues of omega-3 oils, let me make a few basic, reasonable observations:

  1. Individuals differ in their preferences and requirements for fat intake. There is no single answer for all people at all times.
  2. Experts differ in their recommendations for fat intake.
  3. Standards exist for how to measure and report the fat contents of food products.
  4. Standards also exist for the specific conditions under which a vendor may call their food products “low fat” or “light” or “fat -free”. For example, “low fat” products must have 3g or less fat per serving.
  5. The government requires vendors of retail packaged food to label the fat content in accordance with standards #3 and make only claims regarding fat content that conform with standards #4.

The above system generally works. Food vendors have the freedom to add as much fat as they want to their products. If they want to sell deep -fried bacon-wrapped cheese, then fine. No problem. It is a free country. But this is balanced by the consumer’s ability to know the fat content of the products that they purchase. This gives control to the consumer, allowing informed choice.

But take away the standards, take a way the reporting requirements, and the manufacturer has all of the control. Let’s imagine a world where there were no such fat content standards. Medical research would still progress and the long-term dangers of high-fat diets would still be known. But the consumer’s ability to control their fat content would vastly reduced. There would be no informed choice.

Imagine further that Company A, observing the medical research and consumer interest in healthy food, decides to offer a low-fat cheese. But if Company A sells their low-fat cheese, the label “low fat” itself would have no formal meaning. In this hypothetical, there are no standards. Nothing prevents Company B and Company C from also advertising their existing cheeses as “low fat”. Without standards there is no differentiation. Since consumers have no effective way to test the fat content of cheese on their own, they are at the mercy of the non-verifiable claims of vendors and the advertising agencies. Because there are no acknowledged standards for fat content, the market for low-fat cheese is stunted. The consumer does not benefit and the innovative Company A does not benefit. No one wins.

This is a general concern for markets where the consumer cannot directly verify the quality of the goods, because they are packaged and inaccessible to inspection, or because the consumer lacks the technical ability to determine the quality themselves. From fat content to auto gas mileage efficiency, this leads to standards for measuring and reporting qualities of interest to consumers.

So back to reality. We do have fat content standards, for measurement and reporting. Suppose that Company A sells its low-fat cheese and it is very popular, because it is what the consumer wants. Company B is envious of the higher margins on low-fat products, but it would take too long for them to revamp their production line to make a cheese with 3g or less fat per serving. They can only get it down to 5g per serving. What can they do? Well, they can hire a lobbyist, go to Washington, DC, and spread some influence around. They could try to get the FDA to change their definition of “low-fat” so it includes their higher-fat products as well. If you can’t change your product to meet the standards that consumers want, then dumb down the standards!

Sound far-fetched? This is actually happening all the time with certified organic food in the United States. Non-organic ingredients are routinely being allowed in organic food products based on requests from big food manufacturers. The consumer has very little visibility or voice in this process.

So what does this all have to do with ODF? Fair question. The analogy is to extensions of ODF, a topic currently being hotly debated on the OASIS ODF Technical Committee. Extensions are additions to an ODF document which are not defined by the ODF standard. They may be proprietary vendor extensions, or extensions using other open standards. But regardless, since their use in an ODF document is not defined by the ODF standard, they are difficult or impossible to use in an interoperable fashion, at least by those who do not know the secret details of the extension. However, such extended documents may be immensely useful in some situations.

So are extensions good? Are they bad? Are you more concerned with interoperability? Or with a particular use that requires the extension? There is no single answer for all people at all times. Because of this, it is important to put control firmly in the hand of the consumer of ODF products, so they can make the appropriate choice for themselves.

Similar to the mechanism of food labeling, putting control in the consumer’s hands requires that we:

  1. Have a formal definition of what an extended ODF document is versus an unextended ODF document.
  2. Have something like a reporting requirement, so it is clear to the consumer whether a particular document is extended or not.

The proper pace to address these points is in the conformance clause of the ODF Standard. To that end, the current draft of ODF 1.2 defines two conformance classes, one for extended documents and one for unextended documents. The aim, in the end, is to give the consumer greater control and allow them to make a more intelligent choice. We can’t force vendors to implement one or the other conformance class. And we can’t force consumers to use one or the other. But we can formally define what an extended document is and let the free market operate based on the additional information made available.

This is a small step and I know it doesn’t sound like much, but even this modest step provoked such a paroxysms on the ODF TC that you would have thought I was splashing holy water at an exorcism. I suspect this means that I must be doing something right!

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • putt1ck 2009/03/04, 11:12

    Bacon wrapped cheese?

    You want high fat foods? I give you Glasgow’s finest, the deep-fried Mars Bar…

  • Rob 2009/03/04, 12:26

    An inspiring compendium of examples of artery clogging gastronomic excess is over at SuperSized Meals. "Giant burger between two large meat pizzas, eggs, bacon, colby and pepper jack cheese."

    <drool>

    But seriously, I'm low-fat all the way. Down 25 pounds since November.

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