In the latest attempt to gain ground against the nation's epidemic of obesity, the Food and Drug Administration proposed rules Friday that would require some restaurant and fast-food chains to post the calorie content of standard items on their menus.
The rules, which are subject to another round of public comment before they take final form, would also apply to vending machines, coffee shops and convenience and grocery stores. But they would not apply to movie theaters, bowling alleys or airlines.
A California law requiring chain restaurants to display calorie counts has been in effect since January, but many counties — including Los Angeles — have put off enforcing the regulation until the release of the federal guidelines.
Some fast-food chains in the state, including McDonald's, have already begun displaying calorie counts on posted menus in some locations.
The proposed FDA rules would apply to food-selling chains with 20 or more locations nationwide.
Overall, the rule would generally apply to businesses that either define themselves as restaurants or devote more than 50% of their floor area to the sale of food.
The National Restaurant Assn. endorsed the publication of the proposed rules but said it "anticipates there will be many questions." The trade group promised "detailed comments to the FDA to ensure that restaurants are provided adequate time and are able to comply with the regulations effectively, as well as provide information to consumers in the most usable way."
An FDA spokesman said the agency hoped that consumers would be able to compare calorie counts by the end of the year.
Calorie counts would have to be displayed prominently on all menus and menu boards, including at drive-through locations and next to self-service foods, such as items in a salad bar.
Although public health and nutrition specialists welcomed the new rules, few suggested that they would make a substantial difference in the epidemic of overeating that adds an estimated $150 billion a year to the nation's medical bill.
"Nobody thinks that calorie information by itself solves the problem, but it's part of the tool kit," Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said in an interview. "We see this as part of the overall effort to fight obesity."
The exemption of movie theater refreshment stands is a win for the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, which argued to be left out of the disclosure rule.
It was just one of the many fights over the proposed rules, sometimes bolstered by fierce lobbying.
"All of these individual battles are exhausting," said Thomas Sherman, a Georgetown University biochemist who studies nutrition and obesity. "If you can address issues like food marketing, labeling, tax subsidies and farm programs, then you've got the war on obesity. But in the absence of that, you've just got all these skirmishes."
The rate of obesity has more than doubled over the last 40 years. In 1971, an estimated 14.5% of adults in the U.S. were obese, compared with about 35% in 2008.