By Mike Hughlett, TRIBUNE REPORTER — Chicago Tribune, June 11, 2009 Thursday Tabloid Edition
Calorie-count disclosures would be required on menus at chain restaurants under federal legislation that has the backing of the restaurant industry and nutrition labeling watchdogs.
The Senate backers of two competing bills on menu labeling announced bipartisan, compromise legislation Wednesday that would require chains with 20 or more locations to disclose calories of food items on their menu boards or menus.
The legislation also would require such chains to give customers additional written nutritional information — including amounts of fat and cholesterol — immediately upon request. And it would create a national standard that would supersede the growing number of local and state calorie-disclosure mandates aimed at curbing obesity.
“The national policy would be quite strong — as strong or stronger than all the others” on a state and local level, said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the labeling advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“This legislation would replace varying state and local ordinances with a national standard that empowers consumers to make choices that are best for themselves and their families,” National Restaurant Association Chief Executive Dawn Sweeney said in written statement.
Restaurant chains have long fought calorie-count mandates, saying they already give ample nutrition and calorie information. With the spread of local calorie-count mandates, the industry had been pushing for a national standard through a bill known as the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act, or LEAN. That bill would have required chains to have nutrition and calorie information in plain sight prior to the point of sale — but not directly on menus or menu boards.
Competing legislation advocated such disclosures on menus. That bill, known as the Menu Education and Labeling Act, or MEAL, also would have required menus to contain information such as trans-fat and sodium levels.
In the compromise, MEAL advocates dropped the latter requirement, settling for information on customer request. They also dropped language that would allow stronger local labeling laws to supersede national regulation — anathema to the restaurant industry, which doesn’t want a patchwork of rules.
On Wednesday, the Senate sponsor of MEAL, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the Senate sponsors of LEAN, Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), unveiled the compromise.
The calorie count mandate also would apply vending machines “owned by individuals operating 20 or more vending machines,” according to a news release from the legislation’s sponsors. It’s not clear if such a rule is supported by the vending machine industry.
Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, said in an interview that “we’re optimistic this will be passed in the Senate as well as the House and become law,” although the sponsors say the measure would be part of the contentious legislation designed to reform the nation’s health-care system.