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Image: McDonald's Reports First Quarter 2003 Results
People stand at a counter inside a McDonald's in Niles, Ill. New legislation would require nutritional information to be displayed on menus, including on fast-food menu boards like this one.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

A new bill in Congress that would require many restaurants to list nutrition info on their menus was introduced Wednesday. The effort comes as the Food and Drug Administration weighs similar proposals and a survey by an advocacy group shows most Americans would like calories listed along with prices.

Rep. Rosa Delauro, D-Conn., introduced the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) bill in the House, which would force chain restaurants with at least 20 outlets to list key nutrition information. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he would introduce a similar proposal in the Senate.

The labels would be far less detailed than information boxes now on packaged food, but visitors to a McDonald’s or Wendy’s would see calories listed on menu boards above cashiers’ heads and at drive-in kiosks, while customers at sit-down restaurants, like Denny’s or Applebee’s, would get menus that revealed fat and sodium content along with calories.

Though many chains provide the information on their Web sites or keep nutrition binders behind the counter, only a handful make it visible to customers at the point of sale.

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“People shouldn’t have to dig for it,” DeLauro said. “It’s something that’s very important to people and their health.”

Two-thirds of Americans support a requirement for restaurants to list calories on their menus, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit group that backs nutrition labeling. Performed by Global Strategy Group in September, the poll shows 67 percent support the labels while 23 percent oppose them. It had a margin of error of four percentage points.

More meals eaten out
Americans are dining out in ever greater numbers — even though meals eaten out usually are bigger and often more fattening than those eaten at home. The CSPI estimates we now get one-third of our calories from dining out, while recent data from the NPD Group shows 38 percent of all food is consumed at restaurants, even though that accounts for less than one-quarter of all meals.

At the same time, there is stark evidence about the nation’s obesity problems. Though there are hints of improvement, the Centers for Disease Control recently projected that 40 percent of Americans could be obese by the end of the decade, up from 30 percent in 2000.

The prospect of restaurant food labeling got a boost last month when FDA official Joseph Levitt said a committee studying how to fight obesity had considered proposals for labels.

CSPI has long targeted restaurant food content, arguing that consumers often have no idea how fattening entrees can be. It has noted over the years that popular entrees like lasagna and mu shu pork are nearly 50 percent fat, and that one slice of some sausage pizza can be worse for diners than a Big Mac.

Most recently, it took on so-called “fresh Mex” chains, pointing out that the chicken burrito at McDonald’s-owned Chipotle had nearly 1,000 calories, while Wendy’s-owned Baja Fresh served up nachos with over 2,000 calories and two days’ allowance of saturated fat.

Though food nutrition labels now seem commonplace, they have been in place for less than a decade. First mandated by the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 and fully implemented nine years ago, they were the target of early opposition by food manufacturers, many of whom eventually came to endorse them.

“We have had labeling on packaged foods for a while and I think people have really been very grateful for the information,” DeLauro said. “I think they’d be grateful to have the information from restaurants. It helps them to make an informed choice.”

DeLauro’s bill would not help diners decipher every meal: It would not apply to small restaurants, which often have shifting menus and changing ingredients. But most chains standardize their ingredients, making it possible to list nutritional details for basic food items. “They have recipes they have to follow,” said Margo Wootan, CSPI’s director of nutrition policy. “Part of the marketing of these companies is to make sure Denny’s is Denny’s ... wherever you go.”

'Completely unworkable'
While the restaurant industry supports providing nutrition information on a voluntary basis — and most major chains have it prominently displayed on their Web sites — they vehemently oppose a federal label mandate. The industry argues that patrons who want to know about what they’re eating already have access to that information. And they believe DeLauro’s system would be unfair and cumbersome.

“It’s just completely unworkable,” said Terrie Dort, president of the National Council on Chain Restaurants. “When you get into mandates, you take away the company’s options for them to figure out — in their particular workplace, in their particular store, in their particular way — to figure out what’s best.”

One problem, she notes, is that nutritionists continue to debate which information is most pertinent to Americans’ food decisions. While cholesterol was once a focus of great scrutiny, saturated and trans fats now receive much more attention.

And even with the standardized menus, most chains still pride themselves on being able to customize entrees, which Dort said makes it nearly impossible to provide accurate nutrition data. “Can you imagine the thousands of different varieties that could go in a pizza?” she said.

Yet many chains with custom items already provide that information. Both Domino’s and Pizza Hut provide nutrition details for most of their basic pizzas; two slices of Domino’s large Classic Hand-Tossed cheese pizza have 622 calories and 10 grams of saturated fat, while two slices of Pizza Hut’s Hand-Tossed cheese pizza have 440 calories and 9 grams of saturated fat.

And Subway, which allows customers to choose the ingredients on their sandwiches, not only lists nutritional details for most menu items on its Web site but widely promotes in its store displays the nutrition data for seven items that contain six grams of fat or less.

DeLauro and Wootan both noted that the labels would help consumers to make fair comparisons between items and to make choices that often can be counterintuitive. Burger King’s Fish Filet sandwich has more calories than its bacon cheeseburger, for example, while Taco Bell’s taco salad has nearly double the calories and saturated fat of its beef Burrito Supreme.

And Wootan suggested that the data might make hungry customers think twice before they agree to many restaurants’ near ubiquitous upselling pitches. “When you look at the difference between the fries and the super-size fries, all you see now is 80 cents,” said Wootan. “With nutritional labeling, you would see the 400 extra calories.”

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