The Institute of Medicine on Wednesday urged sweeping changes in the nutrition information provided to consumers, including a proposal to require detailed labeling on fresh foods and restaurant meals.
Although acknowledging that the restaurant proposal may prove controversial and may seem impractical at first glance, members of the committee insisted that it is more impractical "to hope that U.S. consumers will be able to successfully select healthier food choices without nutritional information on such foods."
Americans spend about 43% of their food dollars on meals eaten away from home, said Richard A. Merrill, a University of Virginia law professor who served as chairman of the panel. "For many people, restaurant foods represent a large portion of the calories in a day's diet," he said.
The institute is part of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, a congressionally chartered private organization that advises the federal government on matters of science and technology. Although its recommendations do not have the force of law, they often wield considerable influence with policy-makers.
Although the institute's recommendations go beyond those already in the pipeline, they come at a time of increasing support and momentum for food labeling. Legislation that mandates nutrition labeling has already been passed in the House and awaits Senate action. Also, the first phase of similar regulations initiated by the Food and Drug Administration is nearing implementation and is expected to become final early next year.
Although the legislation and the FDA proposals include those fresh foods regulated by the FDA--fruits, vegetables and seafood--neither addresses restaurant foods or fresh meat and poultry, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture.
Some restaurant owners and fast-food chains already have begun providing nutritional information, whereas others "have adopted more healthful preparation methods and offer special dishes that are low in fat or calories," Merrill said. "We very emphatically applaud these voluntary efforts."
Committee members acknowledged that the price of restaurant meals could increase as a result of the added burden of new labeling rules for restaurants, although they predicted that the rise would be small.
The committee, which called upon Congress to legislate the restaurant proposal, suggested that other institutions that serve food provide such information voluntarily.
The institute recommendations were immediately praised by consumer and nutrition groups but denounced by the restaurant industry.
"As restaurant operators, we firmly believe our customers have a right to know what nutrients are in the foods they eat," said Michael E. Hurst, president of the National Restaurant Assn. "Our concern is not with providing such information. Rather, it is with how the information is conveyed."
Hurst called the recommendations "impractical and ineffective" and said they would create "an operational nightmare."
"We buy what is fresh, what is in season, what is available," he said. "If we can obtain tomatoes, we put them in. If the quality is bad, we leave them out. To comply . . . we would have to do a computer analysis of each menu item each day, and that would be far too costly and far too time-consuming."
The American Dietetic Assn., the nation's largest group of food and nutrition professionals, applauded the proposals, saying the committee "came up with a menu of practical suggestions . . . . "
FDA spokesman Jeff Nesbit said the agency has not dismissed the idea of requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information to consumers. "We will look at that further down the line," he said. "Our highest priority is what's in the grocery stores right now. The restaurant issue is a very thorny one because of the diversity of restaurants and the requirements that would be needed."
NUTRITION LABELS ON FOOD
Recommendations by the Institute of Medicine for expanded nutritional labeling of food products:
Grocers should be required to provide point-of-purchase nutritional labeling information for produce, and for fresh and frozen meat, poultry and seafood. The labeling would be based on generally available information rather than specific analysis of the items being sold.
All restaurants should be required to have standard menu items evaluated for their nutritional profiles and provide the information to patrons on request. Menus should state that "nutrient evaluation is available upon request."
Food service establishments above a certain size, such as fast-food chains, should be required to provide nutrition analysis of food items at the point of purchase. The information could be printed on package containers or displayed at a prominent location.
Institutional food service operations, such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes, should be encouraged to provide voluntary nutrition labeling of meals at the point of purchase or point of selection.