Down for the count

by Steve Bjerklie
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Beneath uncountable paragraphs, parts and sections of the health-care reform package signed into law last month by the President lays a new requirement that certain restaurant chains must show calorie counts on their menus and, in the case of fast-food outlets, at their drive-up windows as well. This requirement has been in place already in New York City. A similar law, now superseded by the federal standard, was set to go into effect in California and Oregon in 2011.

In most regions of the country, in fact, fast-food eateries already have calorie count information available. Finding it can be difficult, however. Often it is posted in an out-of-the-way corner of the restaurant or available only on information cards that must be requested from a clerk. It is understandable that some fast-food chains don’t really want customers to know how fatty and caloric the foods, especially the meat items, they sell truly are. A single Big Mac, no fries included, weighs in at 540 calories — more than a quarter of the load of a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, which is the total USDA recommends — and nearly half of those 540 calories come from fat. This isn’t to say no one should ever order a Big Mac, but conscientious eaters know that moderation is in order when it comes to almost any kind of fast food.

According to the New York Times, Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, believes the new federal requirement is “an historic development.” He pointed out that consumers now spend more than half their food dollars on foods eaten away from home, and when people eat away from home “they eat more and they eat worse,” he told the newspaper. “And part of the reason may be because they don’t know what’s in fast foods, and they’re often shocked to find out.” Consumers, he added, “have a right to know.”

The new law requires restaurant chains with 20 or more units to display calorie information for standard menu items as well as calories for each serving of food at salad bars and buffet lines. Calorie information for daily specials and limited-time items is not required to be posted (which will lead, I suspect, to more daily specials and limited-time items). Single independent restaurants are also exempt from the federal law, though not any state or city laws that may apply.

It’s worth noting the restaurant industry actually supported the calorie-display language contained in the healthcare bill, which is a chief reason why the requirement got very little argument in Congress. “We have been strong advocates and supporters in trying to ensure this provision became law, and are extremely pleased that it was signed into law today,” Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, told the NYT at the time of the signing by President Obama. “The association and the industry were supportive because consumers will see the same types of information in more than 200,000 restaurant locations across the country.”

She’s being a tad disingenuous. As the Times reported, the restaurant industry had fought proposals to require calorie displays for many years, but it was slowly losing the battle. Facing the inevitability of either a uniform federal standard or a patchwork of laws differing from state to state (and even city to city within states, as in the example of New York), the industry chose to go along with a federal law to get along.

In any event, I think the meat industry can be a winner in all this. Sure, the calorie count of a hubcap-sized slab of prime rib may scare restaurant patrons into ordering the seafood special – the industry has often joined its restaurant friends in fighting calorie-display requirements — but quite a number of meat products deliver a ton of nutrition for the calories, as industry organizations have promoted for years. Moreover, the new law could encourage the industry to develop still leaner yet tasty products. I hope it does, anyway, because that would benefit everyones. Consumers — that includes you and me — do indeed have a right to know, and the industry has an opportunity to tell a very good story.

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