Congress to mull stricter menu-labeling bill

WASHINGTON Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, have reintroduced federal menu-labeling measures called the Menu Education and Labeling, or MEAL, Act into the U.S. House and Senate, respectively.

The companion bills would require chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets nationwide to post calories on menu boards and food display tags, and calories, saturated and trans fats, carbohydrates and sodium on printed menus. The measures would exclude custom orders or temporary menu items.

The bills, which were originally introduced in 2004, have the “strong support” of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

This is the second federal menu-labeling initiative to be introduced this year. In March, companion bills titled the Labeling Education and Nutrition, or LEAN, Act were reintroduced in the Senate by Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and in the House by Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Fred Upton, R-Mich.

The LEAN Act is viewed as more business friendly in that it allows for more flexibility in where data is posted and at the same time would supercede the growing patchwork of local and state menu-labeling regulations. The MEAL Act would not.

Specifically, the LEAN Act would require restaurant and grocery chains with 20 or more outlets to make nutritional data for menu items available to customers prior to the point of purchase. “Specials” that are on the menu for 90 days or less would be exempt. The measure also would pre-empt all earlier state and local menu labeling mandates and preclude states and localities from enacting tougher rules in the future.

In addition, the LEAN Act would provide liability protection to restaurants that comply with the law.

According to the LEAN Act, foodservice operations with menu boards would have the choice of listing calories on the board, on a sign next to the menu board, on a sign in the queue or by other means as decided by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

The measure also states that restaurants with menus could list calories directly on the menu, on a supplemental menu, on a menu insert or on a menu appendix.

Additional nutrition information — like that contained in the boxes displayed on all packaged foods — also would be required to be available in writing prior to the point of purchase for restaurants with menus and menu boards. In addition to calories, the information would address such nutritional items as fats, sodium and sugar.

 

The LEAN Act has garnered widespread support from such industry associations as the National Restaurant Association, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the International Franchise Association and the Coalition for Responsible Nutrition Information.

More than 30 states, cities or counties have enacted or are considering menu-labeling legislation. Among the states are California, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, New York and South Carolina. Maryland lawmakers decided to abandon their push for a statewide bill in late March, and Tennessee lawmakers decided last week that the issue needed more study before any action could be taken.

New York City last year became the first city to enforce a calorie-posting rule at chain restaurants with 15 or more locations. Westchester County in New York, King County in Washington and Philadelphia also have enacted disclosure regulations.

Contact Paul Frumkin at [email protected] [3].