National nutrition-labeling legislation gathers support

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Senators from both sides of the aisle as well as restaurant chains and public health advocates announced an agreement June 10 on legislation that would require chain restaurants to post calorie information on restaurant menus and menu boards.

The requirement, which is included in the Affordable Health Choices Act legislation introduced June 9 by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and is designed to overhaul the nation’s health care system, combines key elements of the Menu

Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and the Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act sponsored by Senators Tom Carper of Delaware and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

"The individual and societal costs of poor nutrition and diet-related chronic disease compel us to take concrete steps to fashion a society in which the healthy choice is the easy choice, and in which prevention always comes before treatment," Mr. Harkin said. "The menu labeling requirement reached this week will not only help consumers to make informed decisions about their health when eating out, but is a critical part of a broader reorientation to a society of prevention and health promotion."

Ms. Murkowski added, "Today, America is facing an obesity epidemic which must be addressed at the national level. It’s been nearly 20 years since Congress enacted legislation that requires all packaged foods to include nutrition information. However, there is not a comparable national standard for prepared foods. This compromise will allow Americans to be informed about the nutrition content of their foods prior to the point of purchase. This will include calorie information on the menu board at both fast-food establishments as well as at sit-down restaurants."

Under the agreement, restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations would be required to list calories on their menus and menu boards. In addition, those restaurants would be required to give consumers, upon request, more nutritional information, such as fat, saturated fat, sugars, sodium, cholesterol, dietary fiber, protein and carbohydrates.

The agreement also would require vending machine owners operating 20 or more vending machines to "provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button that includes a clear and conspicuous statement disclosing the number of calories contained in the article."

The regulations would not apply to items not listed on a menu or menu board (such as condiments), daily specials, temporary menu items appearing on the menu for less than 60 days per calendar year, custom orders, or food that is part of a customary market test appearing on the menu for less than 90 days.

The proposed federal legislation comes even as a number of state and local governments have put regulations in place to require such disclosure. The restaurant industry has pushed back in most of those cases, but is among a number of industry groups on board with the latest proposal.

"We thank the senators for their bipartisan leadership and for recognizing the importance of legislation that meets the needs of both the restaurant industry and our customers," said Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association. "We look forward to working with Congress to enact this legislation, which provides caloric information on the menu and additional information, such as sodium and carbohydrates, in other accessible formats.

"We know the importance of providing consumers with the information they want and need in a consistent format no matter where they are across the country. This legislation would replace varying state and local ordinances with a national standard that empowers consumers to make choices that are best for themselves and their families."

Proposed national standards for advising customers of calorie content and other nutritional information in lieu of various state and local labeling requirements also was applauded by Craig Prusher, vice-president of government relations, Burger King Corp., Miami.

"Currently, there is a growing patchwork of inconsistent state and local laws governing menu labeling in restaurants that can be confusing for our customers and operators," Mr. Prusher said. "If a federal standard is enacted, we will comply with the implementation regulations by rolling out consistent nutritional menu board in-restaurant calorie information to all of our U.S. company-owned and franchised restaurants."

In addition to the N.R.A., other organizations announcing their support for the legislation included the American Diabetes Association, the American Dietetic Association, The Coalition for Responsible Nutrition Information and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. In addition to Burger King, companies voicing support for the legislation include Brinker International, Dunkin’ Donuts and Darden Restaurants.

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