When it comes to implementing the long-delayed national menu labeling law for chain food service establishments, the food industry is working overtime to chain the hands of Food and Drug Administration officials.
Not only is the final rule and implementation more than a year late, rumors have been swirling that the White House, probably deluged by industry lobbying, may be the force behind the delay. Why would the Obama White House, which brought us first lady Michelle Obama's nationwide campaign for healthier eating, want to delay and possibly weaken a menu labeling law passed by Congress in 2010?
The stalled law would require chain restaurants, some vending machine operators and chain food-service establishments with restaurant-type food like movie theaters, convenience stores, and supermarkets, to post calories on their menus and menu boards. That's it -- a law that will provide consumers calorie information, at point of purchase, so they can make better decisions for themselves and their families.
National menu labeling, when finally implemented, could have a major impact on our diet because Americans get one-third of our calories while eating out. Numerous studies have linked eating out with obesity and higher caloric intakes. One study found that children eat almost twice as many calories at a restaurant compared to a meal at home.
Prior to the 2010 passage of the national law, a number of localities, including Philadelphia and Seattle/King County, successfully implemented menu labeling policies. Approximately 60 percent of New York State's residents have access to calorie labeling at chain food service establishments. New York City passed the nation's first menu labeling policy, which went into effect in 2008, followed by the passage of similar laws in five New York counties. Contrary to industry's dire predictions at the time, implementation went smoothly, and did not cause "financial ruin" for any chain food service establishment. Follow-up studies have shown that menu labeling is helping consumers make better selections when eating out and is encouraging companies to reformulate high-calorie, high-fat products.
What's particularly maddening about the food service industry's full-court press against the stalled federal law is that the measure is a perfect fit with its much touted "personal responsibility" mantra. Consumers are responsible for making healthy food choices, not industry, food service establishments exclaim. But how can consumers make better choices if industry continues to fight to hide the caloric content of their food?
Unfortunately, there are good reasons for the restaurant industry to want to continue to keep calories a secret. Center for Science in the Public Interest's Xtreme Eating 2013 found that even relatively healthful sounding restaurant fare could pack an extraordinary caloric wallop -- and the industry would hate for the consumer to catch on. Who would guess that The Cheesecake Factory's Bistro Shrimp Pasta contains a day and a half's calories (3,120), or that Smoothie King's large Peanut Power Plus Grape Smoothie has 1,460 calories?
And a recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that fast food fare isn't getting much healthier. In spite of industry's pronouncements that they want to help halt our nation's obesity and chronic disease epidemics, the study found only tiny nutritional improvements in fast food over the past 14 years.
It's safe to say that many food service establishments have demonstrated that they are willing to fight tooth and nail to prevent their customers from learning the caloric content of their food. The pizza industry, which is lobbying heavily to be exempted from the menu labeling law, argues that because they've posted nutritional information online, that's enough. Let's get real. How many people go online for nutritional information before they pick up a slice or a pie? Customers deserve to see calorie information when and where they are placing their order.
Lobbyists for the movie theater, convenience store and supermarket industries are also seeking exemptions, even though they sell large portion sizes of restaurant-style food that often contains more calories than people expect.
It's ludicrous that chain restaurants and food service establishments trumpet personal responsibility yet rail against providing useful, basic nutrition information to the consumer at point of purchase. It's even more ludicrous that this important law has been stalled since 2010. Americans want and deserve calories on menus and menu boards so they can make their own decisions about what to purchase and eat. President Obama and the FDA should stand up to industry and ensure that Americans can make informed choices in the wide-range of food service establishments allowed under the law.
This post first appeared in The Hill's Congressional Blog on May 28, 2013.
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