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|February 20, 2008 • Volume 22, Number 4 • http://www.foodchannel.com
IN THIS EDITION
The New York City Department of Health is getting a lot of press about its recent decision (pdf) to require chains (by its definition, a chain is defined as those operating 15 or more locations nationwide) to include calorie information on their menus and menu boards—despite the fact that most restaurants affected by the requirement already include the information on their websites, food wrappers or in brochures in the restaurants. The Department of Health believes that’s not enough.
“Providing calorie information is a public health intervention to help address the rapidly growing twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Providing clear and comprehensible point-of-purchase calorie information allows consumers to make more informed and healthier food choices in restaurants,” according to a statement at its website. Chain restaurants are targeted because, per its findings, nearly 40% of meals in the city are consumed there, and these meals represent a disproportional amount of high-calorie foods associated with obesity. The regulations are set to take effect March 31, 2008.
The Department of Health points to the success of Subway restaurants’ (http://www.subway.com) voluntary posting of calorie information as a model. During what the Department of Health calls its “interview and receipt studies,” customers were interviewed outside of 47 randomly chosen Subway restaurant locations throughout the city. Subway had voluntarily posted nutritional Information for some of its products on a sticker placed on a display case near the cash register. The study determined that 30% of the customers claim to have seen the information. Those customers who saw calorie information purchased items containing 48 fewer calories on average than those who did not see it. Not all customers said the calorie information influenced their decision. Those customers who said calorie information did affect their selection ordered items with 92 fewer calories on average. Based on this information, the Department of Health estimates that if this same reduction in calories holds true in other restaurants covered under this new requirement, it will result in at least 150,000 fewer New Yorkers becoming obese, and at least 30,000 fewer cases of diabetes.
Many nationally recognized health organizations support the menu labeling requirement, including the American Cancer Society (http://www.cancer.org), American Heart Association (http://www.americanheart.org), and the American Medical Association (http://www.ama-assn.org/). The National Restaurant Association (NRA) does not. It threw its support behind the New York State Restaurant Association (http://www.nysra.org), which is fighting the decision in the courts, saying, “The New York City [Department] of Health has once again pushed forward a misguided regulation that would punish the city’s restaurants, many of which are already providing comprehensive and accurate nutrition information to customers in convenient ways, both in the restaurant and on the Web,” said John Gay, senior vice president for government affairs and public policy at the National Restaurant Association in a statement at the NRA website (http://www.restaurant.org).
Here are some state and local governments currently looking to enact similar legislation to require chain restaurants to label their menus and menu boards:
Last year these local or state governments proposed similar legislation, but it was defeated in 2007:
The state of Mississippi is considering taking this issue a step further. Two State Representatives have proposed legislation to ban obese people from eating in restaurants. Restaurants could be in danger of losing their licenses if they violate the law and serve people with a Body Mass Index (or BMI) rating over 30. No word yet on how they would actually take this measurement from prospective customers. Critics have speculated that they could install scales at the doors of restaurants, or perhaps build slimmer doors that only healthy-weight people could fit through. In all seriousness, the reps that proposed the bill aren’t at all confident that it will pass, but they’re trying to bring awareness to the obesity problem. Continue to watch for different tacks, from the sublime to the ridiculous, to combat this growing health crisis.