Lawmakers push for menu labels

Two federal lawmakers have introduced legislation to require fast-food and other chain restaurants to post calories on menu boards and food display tags. The chains also would have to put information about calories, fats, carbohydrates and salt on printed menus.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) on Thursday introduced the Menu Education and Labeling Act, called the MEAL Act for short. They said it would help consumers make more informed choices about the nutritional content of the food they are ordering.

The bill has the support of many consumer and health groups and emulates legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September that requires chain restaurants in California to display calorie counts with each menu item. That was the nation’s first state law of its kind; it won the support of the California Restaurant Assn. because it standardized requirements and preempted ordinances in Santa Clara and San Francisco.

Health advocates believe that when people see the amount of calories, fat and salt in meals before they order them, they will gravitate to more healthful selections.

“Consumers play an impossible guessing game trying to make healthier choices in restaurants,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Who would guess that a large chocolate shake at McDonald’s has more calories than two Big Macs or that a multigrain bagel at Dunkin’ Donuts has 140 more calories than a jelly doughnut?”


The restaurant industry is pushing a competing bill. The Labeling Education and Nutrition Act, nicknamed the LEAN Act, would require chains with more than 20 units to post calorie counts. It also would nullify state and local measures now in effect and preempt future regional measures.

New York City already has a law, and more than a dozen states and numerous cities are pondering menu-labeling legislation. The cities and states with such regulations take different approaches. New York requires the posting of calories, whereas Seattle requires a listing of calories, sodium, saturated fat and carbohydrates.

Americans get a third of their calories from eating out, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“At table-service chains like Ruby Tuesday, Macaroni Grill and Chili’s, it’s easy to find 1,000-calorie appetizers, 1,000-calorie entrees and 1,000-calorie desserts. Not surprisingly, about two-thirds of American adults and a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese,” Wootan said.

Some chains aren’t waiting for legislation.

Yum Brands Inc., the parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, 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.

The California 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.