Menu Labeling: Is Carbon Footprint TMI?

Menu Labeling: Is Carbon Footprint TMI?

Food & Drink

Menu Labeling: Is Carbon Footprint TMI?


Restaurant chains across the U.S. are still trying to prepare for the new menu labeling guidelines due to take effect in the coming year. Soon calorie counts will have to be posted prominently next to each item on the menu (and menu boards) in restaurants with 20 or more units. The menu mandate is part of the health care reform passed by Congress last year.

Now some operators speculate that customers will want to know information beyond calorie and nutrition content—they’ll soon want to see the size of the restaurant’s carbon footprint.

Is this a case of TMI (too much information)?

Maybe, maybe not. This is the Information Age, after all, and the customer (still) is always right.

Some eateries are already providing this info, as reported in a story in QSR Magazine. Otarian, an Australian chain that opened a location in New York last year, touts its low-carbon vegetarian menu. Its menu includes calculated carbon savings. For example, its Tex Mex Burger saves 1.39 kg of carbon dioxide emission when  compared to a typical beef burger.

Otarian customers also receive “carbon karma credits” for purchases, which can be cashed in for free menu items.

Some restaurants overseas have been transparent about their carbon footprint for a while now. Max Burger in Sweden posts the carbon footprint for each of its menu items, and actively encourages purchase of eco-friendly dishes, even though it might deter customers from ordering its signature beef burger.

U.S. quick-service restaurants have been less eager to move toward this level of carbon footprint transparency. A restaurant’s carbon footprint requires an exhaustive amount of number crunching. It must include things like electricity, lighting, and food lamps, as well as food and packaging waste. An accurate carbon footprint rating for a hamburger would have to account for the entire life of the cow, from its birth to becoming a hamburger housed by a bun. Is that something you want to know as you’re about to bite into that burger?

McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada is exploring the carbon footprint issue. The division is putting together a management plan to mitigate its carbon impact, according to a spokesman.

If McDonald’s starts publishing its carbon footprint on its menus in the U.S., that would certainly get the attention of the rest of the restaurant industry, big time.

Subway is one prominent restaurant chain moving in this direction.  According to Elizabeth Stewart, the company’s marketing director, Subway already publicizes data such as gallons of water saved, pounds of source material saved, equivalents to cars taken off road, truck miles reduced, and oil usage reduced.

As consumers demand to know more and more about the food they purchase, it will be fascinating to see whether things like carbon footprint data will indeed be TMI.

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