A food fight is brewing over legislation in Washington that would require restaurants to post calories on menus.
Hoping to clean up a patchwork of what it says are unwieldy state and local laws, a restaurant trade group is pushing a federal bill that would require chains to disclose the calorie counts of meals on the menu.
But big companies such as Domino's, KFC and El Pollo Loco say the proposed legislation lets too many restaurants off the hook. They want to broaden the requirement to include many individual eateries and small chains.
The fight has become so intense that the warring parties have made some unusual alliances. The National Restaurant Assn. has forged a pact with a public policy interest group often called the "food police" and long a foe of the industry. It sees the proposed legislation, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in May and since combined with a competing bill, as the best way to expand menu labeling nationwide after years of objections by the restaurant trade.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen fast-food and pizza chains have linked up with several health groups that believe the legislation should include as many establishments as possible.
The bill, they say, has gaps big enough to let a milk tanker drive through. As written, the bill applies only to chains with 20 or more restaurants operating under the same name. They must post calories on menus and provide more detailed written information, such as fat and sodium content, on request.
The 20-establishment threshold captures just 25% of roughly 1 million restaurants nationally, said Jonathan Blum, a senior vice president of Yum Brands Inc., which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and several other chains.
"That is inadequate. America's consumers deserve better," Blum said. It's also unfair to all the restaurants that will be required to list nutrition information on their menus, he added.
Yum and the other companies say the regulations should apply to individual restaurants with $1 million or more in annual sales and chains with three or more locations.
"A pizza is a pizza no matter where it is purchased," said Steve Carley, chief executive of El Pollo Loco, the Costa Mesa chicken chain.
Large companies such as Patina Restaurant Group, which operates 60 restaurants including the Nick & Stef's steakhouses in New York and Los Angeles and eateries in many performing arts centers, would be exempt from the rules even though the company has about $200 million in annual revenue.
The Los Angeles company says it is exempt from a similarly worded California regulation that will be phased in by Jan. 1, 2011, because its restaurants feature varying themes and menus, a spokeswoman said.
(If passed, the federal legislation would preempt similar laws in California, New York City and other regions for chains with at least 20 units, but local governments would still be able to pass their own laws for single restaurants and smaller chains. Some states have more stringent disclosure requirements than what would be mandated under the federal bill.)
Nick & Stef's, which sells a pan-seared 22-ounce Porterhouse steak for $45 and a Milk Chocolate and Guinness Bread Pudding for $7, is the type of restaurant that could easily comply with the menu rules, according to some health advocates.
"This isn't right," said Barbara Moore, chief executive of Shape Up America, an obesity-fighting nonprofit group. "Somehow we are missing the boat. If we used $1 million in annual sales instead of a random number of restaurants as the cutoff point, a restaurant like this would have to report."
But exempting small businesses is reasonable, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which gained its "food police" nickname in the 1990s when it declared fettuccine Alfredo "a heart attack on a plate."
"It is easier for the big chains to provide accurate information and deal with government regulation," Wootan said.
Last month, the group helped a New Jersey man file a lawsuit against Denny's Corp. alleging that the chain's heavy use of salt puts "customers at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke." The lawsuit asks the court to order Denny's to list the sodium content of its food on the menu and warn about the hazards of consuming salt in high doses.
But in this instance, the center is siding with the National Restaurant Assn. and supports the 20-restaurant cutoff, which the center believes would capture about two-thirds of the nation's eateries, far more than the estimates of opponents, Wootan said.
The legislation is a result of "negotiations" between the Center and the National Restaurant Assn. and represents the best chance of establishing a national menu labeling plan, something the restaurant industry has fought for years, Wootan said.
The restaurant trade group's priority is getting rid of local laws in favor of one national, uniform standard for menu labeling, which it says will make it easier for the national chains to standardize their menus and policies.
"We believe that we are supporting the approach that has the most realistic chance of passage and the best success in preventing a patchwork of harmful regulation and legislation across the country," said Beth Johnson, the group's spokeswoman.
Sen. Harkin -- whose bill was merged with a similar proposal by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.) -- doesn't plan to lower the 20-eatery threshold.
"We think this is a good deal and is consistent with local policies," said Bergen Kenny, a spokeswoman for Harkin.
The provisions are in the Affordable Health Choices Act, the giant healthcare overhaul bill that is tied up in the Senate Finance Committee. It has already passed the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and a similar bill was introduced in the House this year.
Technological advances have made it inexpensive to calculate the nutritional content of food, undermining the argument that smaller restaurant companies and large stand-alone eateries need an exemption from the regulations, said Blum, the executive from Louisville, Ky.-based Yum.
The legislation would allow restaurants to use software that costs $1,000 or less to calculate the nutritional content of recipes. Such programs are frequently used by hospitals and school districts and include 15,000 to 32,000 foods in their databases, depending on the software.
Although the fight over menu labeling has created unlikely bedfellows as well as a rare schism within the restaurant industry, El Pollo Chief Executive Carley said the issues are important.
"If this is truly about nutrition and obesity," he said, "it is intellectually dishonest to have some restaurants disclose nutritional information and others not."