WASHINGTON – A bill proposed in both the House and Senate Wednesday would require chain restaurants to post information about the nutritional content of the food they serve.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced the Menu Education and Labeling Act at a news conference. It would require vending machines and franchise restaurants with at least 20 branches to list nutritional facts on their menus.
The labeling would include calories on menu boards in fast-food restaurants and calories, saturated and trans fat and sodium on printed menus in sit-down chain restaurants. DeLauro and Harkin said their bills specifically exclude individual restaurants and smaller chains.
Affected restaurants would incur only a one-time cost to pay for the menu changes, DeLauro said.
The bill, which is an extension of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 that requires food manufacturers to list nutrition information on packaged foods, is another step in the battle against rising obesity rates, DeLauro said.
“It's a simple solution,” she said. “What we want to do is to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to get the information. And that's why we're moving in this direction.”
Harkin said labeling is an “extraordinarily important” issue.
“Obesity is an epidemic, and it is growing,” Harkin said.
According to the senator, studies have found that more than 65 percent of Americans are overweight, and obesity is a contributing factor in the deaths of 300,000 Americans annually. Harkin cited Surgeon General Richard Carmona's report that obesity cost the country $117 billion in public health costs in 2002.
And, more Americans are choosing to eat out than ever before, said the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy organization, in its report, "Anyone's Guess." According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, away-from-home food provided 34 percent of total calories in 1995, compared to 18 percent of calories in 1978.
According to Margo Wootan, director of CSPI and author of "Anyone's Guess," two-thirds of chain restaurants do not provide nutrition information at all.
Some fast-food chains have voluntarily begun posting nutrition information in stores and on their Web sites.
Au Bon Pain bakery and café, which has more than 230 stores in five countries, provides nutrition information, including calories, total fat, sodium, carbohydrates and protein for each of its menu items at computer kiosks in stores and on its Web site.
“We have a real interest in providing our customers the information they need to make the right choices,” said Jim Fisher, the company's vice president of marketing. “We think we are offering our customers the information they need right now.”
But listing ingredients on a Web site or pamphlet is not enough, Wootan said.
Often, nutritional information is listed on hard-to-see posters or hidden pamphlets, she said. Consumers rarely visit a Web site before choosing what to eat in the fast-food line.
“What people need is easy-to-find, easy-to-use nutritional information right on the menu,” she said. “So they can use this stuff to make healthy choices.”
The National Restaurant Association opposes the DeLauro-Harkin legislation.
Allison Whitesides, the group's director of legislative affairs, said many consumers customize their orders at chain restaurants, making the calorie counts inaccurate.
“Labeling a restaurant menu clearly is not an answer to addressing an obesity issue,” Whitesides said. “We want to be part of the solution if there's a place for us, but we're not medical doctors. … We really should not be giving out dietary guidelines for people. We're not dietitians.”
Similar bills are pending in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.