Fast-foods will Have to Post Calories on Their Menu Boards

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fat_cRestaurant industry opposes MEAL plan, favors less-stringent rules for displaying food information. The battle over mandatory calorie disclosures on chain restaurant menus is heating up, as public health advocates and the restaurant industry prepare to duke it out in Congress. The industry said a patchwork of local and state laws will confuse consumers and be costly to restaurant owners.

By Mike Hughlett

Last week, bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would force fast-food chains like Oak Brook-based McDonald's Corp. to post calories on their menu boards, so you'll know at a glance not only how much your Big Mac costs, but also the 540 calories it packs.

Similar regulations, all aimed at curbing obesity, have been passed in recent years in several U.S. municipalities and two states, including in Massachusetts last week. The local rules have been adamantly opposed by the restaurant industry, which has fought back on a federal level.

Earlier this year, industry-backed bills were introduced in Congress that would require calorie disclosure, but not to the extent of the local and state rules or the rival calorie-disclosure bills just introduced on Capitol Hill.

Some public health advocates criticize the industry-backed federal initiative as weak and dislike the fact that it would pre-empt stronger local rules. But the industry said a patchwork of local and state laws will confuse consumers and be costly to restaurant owners.

It's a top issue for the restaurant industry, which Saturday began its annual convention at Chicago's McCormick Place, one of the city's biggest business gatherings.

The Menu Education and Labeling Act, known as MEAL, was introduced in Congress last week. It would require restaurant chains with 20 or more stores to display calorie counts on their menu boards. The bill also would require printed menus at such chains to include calorie counts as well as information about trans fats, carbohydrates and sodium.

"The financial cost has been there [on the menu], but the health cost associated with your purchase has never been that easily accessible," said Mark Peysakhovich, senior director of advocacy in Illinois for the American Heart Association, which backs the MEAL bill along with the American Diabetes Association.

Scott Vinson, vice president at the National Council of Chain Restaurants, said the bill would be expensive and cumbersome for restaurant owners.

"The menu board is valuable real estate, and there's only so much information you can get on it," he said.

Major restaurant chains have long argued they give consumers ample nutrition and calorie information. McDonald's, for instance, notes that it supplies such information on its Web site, via a toll-free phone number, on some product packaging and on the back of tray liners.

But Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the labeling advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the industry's disclosures aren't resonating with consumers. She cites a study this month in the American Journal of Public Health, which found that few people read the nutrition information available at restaurants.

Yale University researchers studied 4,311 restaurant patrons at the outlets of four chains -- McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks and Au Bon Pain -- and found only six customers who looked at the available nutrition information.

Beth Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, said the Yale study wasn't comprehensive.

Momentum for mandatory calorie counts kicked into high gear last summerwhen New York City, over much industry opposition, forced fast-food operators to add calorie counts to menu boards.

Since then, similar requirements have been implemented in the Seattle and Portland, Ore., areas and Westchester County in New York. California passed a similar law, but it has not taken effect. In Chicago, a calorie-count proposal from Ald. Edward Burke (14th) has been pending before the City Council for a year.

With the growth of local laws, the restaurant industry, including McDonald's, has been backing the proposed Labeling Education and Nutrition Act, called LEAN.

That bill would require restaurants to have nutrition and calorie information "in plain sight" prior to the point of sale, said the restaurant association's Johnson. But it wouldn't force restaurants to add information to menus and menu boards.

Wootan, a MEAL bill advocate, said that bill has a leg up on the LEAN bill favored by the industry because the chairmen of the Senate and House committees that would hear the legislation are co-sponsors of the MEAL bill.


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