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NYC revives, expands menu-labeling plan

NEW YORK New York City health officials have broadened the scope of their controversial menu-labeling plan to address the limitations that prompted a federal judge in September to block enactment of the initial proposal.

The rewritten proposal would require all restaurants operating in New York City that sport the same brand name and menu as at least 14 other units nationwide to post calorie information on menu boards and menus.

The rule would affect about 2,400 restaurants, or about 10 percent of the city's foodservice operations, according to the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The city's original plan applied only to operators that already offered calorie information on websites, food wrappers, tray liners or in brochures. The new measure would apply to any outlet of a chain with at least 15 units, regardless of whether it has provided calorie counts in the past.

The revised proposal extends to combination meals, unlike its predecessor. The board of health also indicated that it would set background and contrast standards for how the calorie counts for each menu item would have to be displayed. The prior rule addressed only font size, not background.

The new plan also waives the requirement that calorie counts be listed directly adjacent to an item. Instead, it specifies, "calorie information can be clearly associated with" a menu choice. However, it mandates that calorie information also be listed "on item tags where food is displayed."

Passed in December 2006 by the board of health, the original proposal was scheduled to take effect July 1. However, the law was challenged this summer by the New York State Restaurant Association, which maintained that the health department lacked the authority to impose such a policy.

In September, U.S. District Judge Richard Holwell ruled in the association's favor, but he indicated that the department would not have violated federal standards had it not restricted the mandate to chains that voluntarily disclosed the information.

The board of health characterized Holwell's decision as being based on a technicality, and vowed to come back with a revised labeling plan.

Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York City chapter of the NYSRA, said it was "disappointing that the health department would expand [the ordinance] to include more franchisees. While they're talking about chains with 15 or more units, it may only affect operators who own one or two establishments. The cost and maintenance falls on the shoulders of small businesses."

Hunt said the association is exploring its options, although he declined to speculate on whether the NYSRA would challenge the new proposal.

New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden said posting calorie information would help combat obesity by letting "make healthier choices about what to eat and drink."

The health department is expected to vote on the measure in January after soliciting public comment on the revised plan for a three-hour stretch on Nov. 27. If adopted, the measure would take effect March 31, 2008.

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