Let’s not lag on calorie labeling at restaurants

Panera is one of the restaurants that has adopted menu calorie labeling before regulations require it. Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/69048726@N06/6284124773/

It’s been six years since Congress passed a national policy to allow people to make informed choices when eating out. This popular policy, passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, still has yet to be implemented. The latest delay is largely the fault of pizza restaurants, convenience stores, and supermarkets.

The public wants to know more about the nutritional quality of their food when eating out — eight out of ten Americans back menu labeling. Nutrition and health organizations and researchers support menu labeling, given the positive effect on people’s food choices and restaurant offerings. A recent Harvard study found restaurant menu calorie labeling could prevent up to 41,000 cases of childhood obesity and could save over $4.6 billion in healthcare costs over ten years.

Nearly a dozen states and localities have implemented their own menu labeling policies, and about 30 more introduced or passed their own laws. Most of the restaurant industry supported passage of the national menu labeling law, including the National Restaurant Association, and chains like McDonald’s, Panera, Starbucks, and Au Bon Pain, have gone ahead with menu labeling before the regulations require it. Most recently, Subway announced it would move forward with menu labeling, stating “…consumers are looking for this, and with all the delays, they’re confused as to why it’s not out there.”

This Bethesda, MD Panera labels its baked goods.

The pizza industry (led by Domino’s), the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which represents supermarkets, have aggressively lobbied Congress to delay and weaken menu labeling. A rider in the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016 delays menu labeling implementation until one year from the issuance of final guidance by the Food and Drug Administration. Preliminary guidance was released in September 2015, which the FDA should move quickly to finalize.

They’ve also backed the so-called Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act (H.R.2017/ S.2217), which is neither common sense nor would it disclose nutrition information. The bill would allow restaurants and other food establishments to make up their own serving sizes, deny customers calorie information on menu boards inside pizza chains and many other restaurants, and weaken enforcement and consumer protection. Rather than provide modest flexibility to some food service establishments, as the bill sponsors have claimed, the bill is a part of Republican efforts to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act: as Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) put it: “This important legislation [H.R. 2017] would roll back the FDA’s burdensome menu labeling rule” (emphasis added).

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Republican House sponsor of the anti-menu labeling legislation, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), received at least $14,600 from Domino’s Pizza , $42,500 from NACS, and $6,000 from FMI in political action committee (PAC) contributions since 2012. Similarly, NACS donated $15,000 to Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), the Democratic sponsor of the legislation. The Senate sponsor, Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), received at least $110,000 from NACS and $6,298 from FMI during this time period.

Without nutrition information, it’s difficult to make informed choices. At Domino’s, an eight-piece order of bread sticks has twice the calories of an eight-piece order of chicken wings. At TGI Fridays, the rice pilaf side dish has twice the calories of the mashed potatoes.

A Domino’s menu in Bethesda, MD

Over the last 20 years, we’ve gotten used to having Nutrition Facts on nearly all packaged foods. Two-thirds of Americans use nutrition labels to decide for themselves how many calories they want to eat. Restaurant nutrition information is more important than in the past, as Americans get, on average, a third of their calories from eating out.

The Administration should move quickly to finalize the guidance so menu labeling can be implemented as soon as possible, and the Senate should reject the anti-menu labeling bill and listen to the millions of Americans who want to make informed choices over a few industry special interests.

Dr. Margo Wootan is director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on nutrition and food safety. Wootan has worked on national, state and local menu labeling policies since 2003.

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