If you have ever eaten microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, or a cookie, chances are you have already consumed a trans fat. Trans fat, or trans fatty acid, is created through a process called hydrogenation. During this process, a manufacturer adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, which transforms the oil into a solid fat and increases the shelf life of certain foods like the ones listed above.
Unfortunately, trans fat happens to be one of the worst types of fats that you can eat. Trans fats increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other kinds of medical conditions that may affect your blood vessels and cholesterol levels. In fact, trans fats are so dangerous to your health that some states, like California, have banned manufacturers and food services from adding them to foods in the state.
Almost a decade after California banned trans fats usage in the state, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) followed suit and started placing nationwide restrictions on food manufacturers in the hopes that they could prevent the rising number of consumer deaths caused by consumption of foods with trans fats.
What Is California’s Ban on “Trans Fats”?
According to Section 114377 of the California Health and Safety Code, better known as California’s Trans Fat Bill, any foods that contain trans fats must not be stored, served, used, or distributed in connection with the preparation of any food in a retail food facility in the state. However, this does not mean that all foods within the state are free of trans fats, but rather that its use must be limited in restaurants and certain food preparation facilities.
For instance, the Bill does not apply to foods that are sealed and still inside their original packaging (e.g., Twinkies). If a food facility takes the food out of its original packaging though, then the ban will apply. This is true even in cases where a food facility may be serving it as a sample.
In addition, the Bill also requires that every food facility in the state maintain a label for any food or food additive that contains fats, oils, or shortening (e.g., Crisco) on their premises. There is one type of facility that the Bill exempts and that is public school cafeterias. Public school cafeterias do not have to comply with the provisions of the Trans Fat Bill because they were already prohibited from serving trans fat foods due to a previous law.
Although California’s Trans Fat Bill was signed into law back in 2008, the law did not officially go into effect until 2010. The law was then amended approximately one year later. Starting in 2011, the California legislature added deep-fry oils, such as those used to make donuts and other bakery treats, to the list of banned ingredients. The law has not been revised since the 2011 amendment.
What Are the Other Requirements and Consequences Of “The Trans Fat Bill” in California?
A state food facility that violates the provisions of California’s Trans Fat Bill may have to pay some amount of criminal fines, ranging between no less than $25 and no more than $1,000.
In order to determine whether a food is allowed under the statute, the first thing to do is to check the nutrition facts panel found either on the food packaging or on the premises of the food facility. If the nutrition facts panel says that the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fatty acids per serving, then the food will be approved for consumption.
On the other hand, if the nutrition facts panel says the product contains 0.5 grams or more of trans fatty acids per serving, then the next place to look is at the list of ingredients. If the ingredients show any type of margarine, vegetable shortening, or partially hydrogenated oil, then the trans fat will be deemed as artificially produced and the food facility will be in violation of the law.
However, if the product does not contain any type of margarine, vegetable shortening, or partially hydrogenated oil, but still shows that it has 0.5 grams or more of trans fat, then the trans fat will be found to be naturally occurring and the food facility will not be in violation of the law. This can happen when the ingredients in a particular food include certain dairy products or meats.
In the event that there are no nutrition fact panels or ingredients listed on a food package, then a consumer may ask the food supplier or manufacturer to send them a letter with the list of ingredients or to provide them with the amount of trans fat content for each serving.
Lastly, while many of the requirements are already laid out in California’s Bill, food facilities may also need to comply with the newly enacted Trans Fat FDA Order of 2018. In some instances, a food facility may be able to submit a petition to the FDA to request that a specific food additive that is made up of partially hydrogenated oils, but would not harm a consumer, be approved for use.
If the FDA grants the food facility’s request, then they will not be in violation of the federal law, but they may be in violation of California’s Bill. Thus, it is best to check with both the federal and state government agencies before including a particular ingredient in a food or food additive.
What Should I Do If I Suspect a Violation?
When a restaurant or food facility violates the terms of California’s Trans Fat Bill, it is usually up to a government agency, such as a state consumer protection bureau or the FDA, to enforce the law and punish the offender accordingly. In this instance, the restaurant or food facility would have to pay monetary fines. This is why restaurants and food facilities have health code inspections to ensure that they are in compliance with the relevant laws.
When a consumer believes that a restaurant or food facility has violated the terms of California’s Trans Fat Bill, however, the procedures become a bit more complicated. This will usually entail submitting a complaint with the appropriate government agency. Depending on where you live in California, this may be a local health code inspector or the state consumer protection bureau.
If the trans fat appears in a product that you believe would fall under the Trans Fat Bill, then you may be able to sue the food manufacturer or facility for either false advertising, fraudulent business acts, or unlawful business practices. Although it is possible to prevail on such a claim, it is strongly recommended that you speak to a California defective products lawyer before taking any legal action.
An experienced consumer protection lawyer can help you navigate the necessary procedures to submit a complaint to your local government agency, or alternatively, to file a lawsuit against the offending food facility. Your lawyer can also explain how state laws may affect your case and the potential remedies based on varying outcomes. Oftentimes, these cases typically only result in an equitable remedy, such as an injunction or a cease and desist order.
However, a plaintiff who pursues a case may be able to collect an award of attorneys’ fees and costs. To find out more about your rights and options for legal recourse under California law, you should contact a consumer lawyer immediately to ensure your time to file a claim does not expire.