Restaurants are being told to list calorie counts on their menus. Schools are banning bake sales, and cities are outlawing new fast-food restaurants in some neighborhoods.
State and local governments, concerned about the growing cost of obesity and diabetes and the ever-higher cost of healthcare, are acting more like food police. And more regulations may be ahead.
Decades of federal inaction in fighting the nation’s obesity epidemic and regulating dangerous food ingredients such as artery-clogging trans fats are behind these local and state efforts, said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The Obama administration, with large majorities in Congress and headed by a president who made healthcare a centerpiece of his campaign, could launch a new era of food regulation, he said. “The Obama administration clearly believes strongly that government has a major role to play in many arenas, including protecting the public’s health.”
Jacobson and other proponents of more oversight of what and how the nation eats want to see the Food and Drug Administration split into two agencies, with one focusing on food and the other on drugs and medical devices.
They say the FDA commissioner traditionally has been preoccupied with drug regulation and has allowed food oversight to flounder. Critics cite what they characterize as the agency’s weak, slow and inept efforts this year when melamine was found in contaminated infant formula in the United States and a months-long outbreak of salmonella poisoning in produce sent 286 consumers to the hospital.
Greater regulation of food production, preparation and consumption -- whether on the local or national level -- is controversial.
“The government might have good intentions, but can’t average citizens make up their own minds on what to eat? This is an example of nanny government,” said Bill Whalen, an analyst at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Despite some criticism from food manufacturers and restaurants, state and local officials are setting the pace and defining the agenda. New York City, Philadelphia and California have banned trans fats.
Several local health departments -- including Los Angeles County -- want the federal government to reclassify salt as a food additive, a move that would pave the way for greater regulation.
More than a dozen states and numerous cities are pondering legislation patterned after a new California law forcing chain restaurants to list calorie counts on menus. Los Angeles has a one-year moratorium on new fast-food outlets in a 32-square-mile area of South Los Angeles that is home to 500,000 residents. San Jose is looking at a similar proposal.
A legislative and consumer backlash against trans fats has pushed big restaurant chains -- including KFC, Burger King, IHOP, Applebee’s, Starbucks, Subway, Taco Bell and Denny’s -- to begin to eliminate trans fats from their foods.
Yum Brands Inc., the parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, isn’t waiting for more legislation. It plans to add product calorie information to menu boards in its company-owned restaurants nationwide and to encourage franchise owners to do the same. The company said the calorie information would be phased onto menu boards starting this year and be completed by Jan. 1, 2011.
It’s a big move by one of the largest purveyors of fast food. Louisville, Ky.-based Yum franchises or owns about 20,000 U.S. restaurants.
So far, the local regulatory initiatives have gained momentum because of rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, said Amy Winterfeld, a health policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“If Americans ate healthier food and were more active they would not be as obese and there would not be as many obesity-related healthcare costs,” Winterfeld said.
Yet restaurant customers don’t always agree that legislating food rules or forcing chains to post nutritional information is the best way to tackle the problem.
“They are going too far trying to regulate people’s lives and health. Soon they will be regulating portions,” said David Yochelson, an Encino attorney who dines out with his family several times a month.
Policies such as the fast-food establishment moratorium in Los Angeles border on racism, said Joe R. Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles civil rights organization.
“It’s insulting. They are saying that if you live in Brentwood you have the ability to make choices for yourself but if you live in South Los Angeles you don’t,” Hicks said.
The restaurant industry calls the trend to legislate food choices a case of mistaken priorities.
“With crime and budget-shortfall issues, why are city and state legislators focusing on trans fats and fast-food restaurants?” asked Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Assn.
State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) disagrees. The author of the menu-labeling legislation believes government has a legitimate interest in food-related health issues because of how poor diet affects health and, by extension, state and federal budgets.
“As long as we have an obesity epidemic and a health crisis in our communities there is a role for government to play. The debate comes over how much is too much and how much is too little,” Padilla said.
Menu labeling gives people the information to make healthful eating decisions, he noted, but it doesn’t tell people how to eat or limit options.
Jacobson said there was already evidence that increased food regulation was paying off.
Just two years ago Harvard University medical school researchers estimated that artificial trans fats -- from partially hydrogenated oil -- caused 72,000 to 228,000 heart attacks annually in the United States.
Jacobson said that number was already dropping as cities and states started to ban trans fats and restaurants and food producers moved to remove them from their offerings.
In July, California became the first state to require restaurants to cook without trans fats. The law requires restaurants to use oils, margarines and shortening with less than half a gram of trans fats per serving by Jan. 1, 2010, and applies the standard to deep-fried bakery goods by Jan. 1, 2011.
Menu labeling is another trend. Some health advocates believe that if people see the amount of calories, fat and salt in meals before they order them, they gravitate to more healthful selections.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation in September requiring chain restaurants in California to display calorie counts with each menu item. It was the first state law of its kind in the nation but won the support of the California Restaurant Assn. because it standardized requirements and preempted local ordinances in Santa Clara and San Francisco.
The new law applies to restaurants with 20 or more locations in California, about 17,000 eateries. Beginning July 1, they must provide brochures with the number of calories and grams of saturated fat for each item. Starting Jan. 1, 2011, all menus and menu boards will have to include the number of calories for each item.
Other cities have different approaches. New York requires the posting of calories, whereas Seattle requires listing calories, sodium, saturated fat and carbohydrates.
Although many cities and states like the local autonomy, the National Restaurant Assn. is pushing federal legislation that would end local rules and increase flexibility, said Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the group.