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Some operators see multiunit calorie focus as unfair

The federal menu-labeling bill may be a done deal, but some multiunit operators are continuing the debate over whether the national guidelines go far enough.

Several prominent foodservice operators maintain that limiting the mandate to chains with 20 or more units puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

“I don’t have any issue with putting forth nutritional information,” said Roger Berkowitz, president and chief executive of Boston-based Legal Sea Foods. “What I do have an issue with is that it seems biased against multiunit operators.”

While the federal legislation was working its way through Congress earlier this year, however, lobbying efforts by a coalition of chain operators to broaden the legislation to all restaurants fell on deaf ears—despite support from such big players as Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc., parent to the Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC chains.

Yum in 2008 was one of the first national chain operators to announce plans to post calories at the point of sale in company-owned stores by 2011, as well as push for federal legislation to eliminate what was then a growing patchwork of mandates that varied by jurisdiction.

“We were responding to the voice of our customers,” said Jonathan Blum, Yum! Brands’ senior vice president and chief public-affairs officer. “But it’s inappropriate for this to stop at chains with 20 or more units.”

Other chain operators agree, but it is not a battle they want to take on.

Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications for Domino’s Pizza Inc., based in Ann Arbor, Mich., said, “We’re not picking that up as a mantle, though I’m not saying we disagree.”

Steve Carley, chief executive of the El Pollo Loco chain based in Costa Mesa, Calif., said he would like to see grocery store delis and cafes, at the very least, included in the menu-labeling requirements. Retail outlets like Costco arguably sell as many pizzas as Pizza Hut in a community, he said.

However, Carley posed that it may be the restaurants that don’t openly disclose calorie counts that would be at a competitive disadvantage once chains across the country are doing it.

“People will start to say [to those who don’t post calories], ‘What are you hiding?’” Carley said.

Dan Roehl, public-affairs specialist with the National Restaurant Association, said the federal legislation includes provisions for voluntary compliance. Restaurant operators who choose to participate will be shielded from state or local requirements.

“Having nutrition information out and available is something our industry is embracing,” he said.

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