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Menu Labeling Battle Begins Anew

Americans expect nutrition labeling on food in the grocery store. Now Congress wants to mandate similar rules for restaurant food.

Today Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) are introducing the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act, which requires chain restaurants with 20 or more business locations to provide consumers with information on calories, sodium, saturated and trans fats, and carbohydrates.

Lawmakers have introduced similar legislation in the past three congressional sessions. But the focus on health care this year could give the bill a boost; of the $2 trillion spent on health care annually, 75 percent goes to managing chronic diseases that are in many cases preventable, Harkin said.

This bill follows a year of significant action in city and states around the country. Last year, New York City launched an initiative that requires calorie information to be posted on menus and menu boards. And last fall, California became the first state to enact a menu-labeling bill for chain restaurants. (A measure was also introduced in the Montgomery County Council, but it was never passed.)

Studies show that Americans eat more food than ever outside the home and that making healthful choices isn’t as easy as it seems: In a 2007 California poll, on average only 10 percent of respondents could pick the most healthful item from a short list of common fast foods.

The restaurant industry initially opposed any federal rules, but in light of local regulations is backing its own bill, the Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act. Introduced in March, the law would be weaker than public health advocates desire, requiring nutrition information to be posted somewhere in chain establishments but not necessarily on menu boards. The bill also preempts stricter local regulations, which the industry says are too varied for national corporations to adhere to.

Who’s right? Would you like more information on menus, or elsewhere? Should it be required?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  May 14, 2009; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, nutrition, restaurants  
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The fact that there are now two bills in Congress proposing restaurant menu labeling, the LEAN Act and the MEAL Act, demonstrates how important the issue of helping consumers eat more healthfully in restaurants is to health experts and the public alike.

However it is unfortunate that two well-respected health organizations (American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association) have chosen to support the MEAL Act which would provide less information to consumers by placing more emphasis on calories and limiting the other nutrition facts offered. Both the MEAL and LEAN Acts require information on calories, saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates and sodium be provided, but the LEAN Act proposes to go further by also including data on items like protein, cholesterol and fiber. Anything less would shortchange consumers.

As a dietitian and diabetes educator who counsels people with diabetes and heart disease and has written extensively on the topic of healthy restaurant eating, I know that providing consumers with the breadth of nutrition facts they have come to rely on in the supermarket is the more beneficial approach. The LEAN Act does just that.

Further, the LEAN Act will ensure that this nutrition information is available in a uniform manner from one restaurant to another everywhere in the country, which will help consumers whether they are eating out near home or while traveling.

I support the LEAN Act because it is the more comprehensive and detailed proposal and it would establish a national standard.

Hope Warshaw, RD, CDE

Posted by: hopewRDCDE | May 16, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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