Industry divided on federal menu-labeling bill

WASHINGTON Twenty-one foodservice chains sent a letter to members of Congress on Friday urging lawmakers to broaden the scope of federal menu-labeling legislation to require more restaurant locations to post nutrition data.

In a letter sent last week to Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, a group of quick-service and full-service operators said they backed a federal proposal to require nutrition labeling in restaurants, but urged lawmakers to expand the reach of the proposed law.

Late last month restaurant industry officials had expressed widespread support [3] for a bipartisan agreement combining elements of two existing Senate menu-labeling bills that would require chains with 20 units or more to post calorie information on menu boards, menus or drive-thru signage.

The measure — a combination of the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act and the Menu Education and Labeling Act — drew praise from the National Restaurant Association and the National Council of Chain Restaurants as well as such major chains as Burger King, Darden Restaurants and Brinker International.

But another group of foodservice operators including Texas Roadhouse, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Which Wich?, Domino’s Pizza, Del Taco, El Pollo Loco, Jack in the Box and Yum! now are insisting the measure doesn’t go far enough, revealing the fact that the entire industry does not support the bill in its present form.

“It’s a very good start and we think a bill needs to be passed requiring menu labeling with federal pre-emption,” said Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of public affairs for Yum! Brands Inc., one of the participating foodservice operators. “However, as a matter of good public policy the language should be modified to cover more customers in restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores.”

In its letter, the group writes: “While we support many of the key substantive provisions included in [the measure], we believe it is a mistake to limit its application only to large chains. This limitation, which effectively exempts more than 75 percent of the restaurants in the [United States], is an important flaw that we believe must be addressed.”

In 2008 Yum announced that it had decided voluntarily to post per-serving calorie counts on the menu boards of all its company-owned U.S. outlets by Jan. 1, 2011.

In an earlier interview with Nation’s Restaurant News discussing California’s statewide menu-labeling law, Blum also had called the exemption of foodservice brands that have fewer than 20 outlets “patently unfair. What we’re looking for is a uniform standard…”

“Exempting the vast majority of businesses from this requirement is not warranted by the limited burden involved in providing this information and undermines the key consumer benefit that is the central purpose of the legislation,” the letter says.

The participating chains recommend that policymakers set “a reasonable minimum financial standard for inclusion, such as $1 million in annual sales, and/or by applying the requirements to all chains with three or more locations.”

“The existing language exempts three times more restaurants than it includes,” Blum said, adding that it isn’t necessary for all 945,000 foodservice operations in the United States to provide nutritional information, but the current proposed number is “inadequate.”

Travis Doster, a spokesman for Texas Roadhouse in Louisville, Ky., said he doesn’t think the proposal goes far enough either. “I think there might be a backlash,” he said. “The public thinks they’re getting a nationwide menu-labeling law, and they’re not going to see it in most of their restaurants.

“You don’t require just the biggest cars to have seatbelts; you require all cars,” he added.

Doster also said that while the letter has been signed by about 20 chains, the participating operators had conversations “with many other chains that agree with us but for whatever reason chose not be listed here. The picture [of the industry] is not as unified as has been presented.”

However, Beth Johnson, executive vice president of public affairs for the NRA, maintained that the foodservice industry "is in fact unified about the most critical provision in the nutrition information legislation: the need for federal preemption. Having one national, uniform standard is essential, and there is widespread industry agreement that we need a federal legislative approach to create that standard.

"We believe that we are supporting the approach that has the most realistic chance of passage and the best success in preventing a patchwork of harmful regulation and legislation across the country," she said.

Contact Paul Frumkin at [email protected] [4].