Many restaurants not notified of trans fats ban

May 7, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
California was the first state in the nation to ban trans fats from all restaurants. Though the law went into effect on January first, many restaurants haven't been officially notified about the ban.

"Today what we are going to be doing is a trans fat inspection," says Aleli Lamadrid to a restaurant owner.

Santa Clara County health inspector Lamadrid is looking for trans fats at one Palo Alto restaurant.

"So what we are looking at is the nutrition facts. So right here it says that there are zero trans fats so that's good. So, we wouldn't have any problems with that," says Lamadrid.

Diets high in trans fats are bad and have been linked to heart disease and high cholesterol.

Though the law was passed nearly two years ago, many restaurants are only now being notified about it.

The law takes effect in two phases. The first applies to all oil shortening and margarine used for frying and in spreads. The second phase will begin next January when the ban expands to deep fried yeast dough and cake batter.

"I think that there is confusement [sic] in both industry and the regulating side, maybe as to what's being banned the first year," says Lara Diaz from the California Restaurant Association.

Restaurants that don't comply are subject to fines from $25 to $1,000, but a check of Bay Area counties found that no one has been cited and in some cases, enforcement is barely happening.

Sheldon Lew is a San Francisco health inspector. He says his department had initially planned a one-on-one approach, talking to restaurants as they came up for inspection. However, with just 15 inspectors they quickly realized they weren't moving fast enough.

"A lot of the workers are from immigrants and they don't have the language capabilities of just knowing English only. So were going to do it in several languages," says Sheldon Lew.

Health inspectors in San Francisco say the sheer number of restaurants is an obstacle. You could eat three meals a day in the city at different restaurants for five years and never eat at the same place twice. Then there's the diversity of cuisine. Health inspectors say there are cultural and language barriers that also have to be overcome.

The rest of the Bay Area rolled out its educational campaign earlier this year.

Dean Peterson is San Mateo County's chief of environmental health. He helped create the standards of enforcement in those other eight Bay Area counties.

"For the first year, it's part of a conversation with the owner, but we're not marking it down on our inspection report," says Peterson.

"The trans fat ban is actually going very well, exceeding our expectations," says Phil Smith.

Smith is with the Santa Clara Department of Environmental Health. He says the good news is that despite the soft roll out of the law, most restaurants are in compliance.

"Manufacturers have responded very quickly and reformulated products so as a result, we are seeing very few violations of the trans fat law when we inspect food facilities," says Smith.

Still, the bill's author isn't happy with the slow roll out of the law. He says trans fats are threat to public health and need to be removed from shelves and restaurants.

"It's disheartening because this affects obviously our youth and the families in California. They're under the belief that now they are eating healthier foods. To hear that, it bothers me," says Assembly member Tony Mendoza, D-Norwalk.

Every county ABC7 spoke with says they now expect to begin issuing citations for violations of the law in January.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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