Debate over calorie counts on menus continues in US

Posted by James Ferre on 13th August 2008

The notion of calorie counts on restaurant menus has polarised opinion in the US, as California appears likely to follow in the footsteps of New York and introduce controversial calorie count legislation.

New York introduced a law earlier this year which requires calorie information to be shown next to items on the menus of restaurant chains with over 15 stores.

The restaurant industry is against the plans as they feel the implementation of such legislation unfairly singles them out as the prime reason for the obesity epidemic. The industry is reportedly willing to supply the nutritional information but believe retailers should not have to place it on menu boards.

A new statewide poll in California discovered that 62 per cent of Californians prefer to have nutritional information available in restaurants but not on the menu board, opposed to 37 per cent who favour a mandate to post the information on the menu board. The poll, conducted by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates at the request of the California Restaurant Association, shows that while customers do want nutritional information available in restaurants, they prefer a policy that offers restaurants a variety of methods for providing the data.

“Restaurants voluntarily began to make nutritional information available years ago because the restaurant industry recognised that many of our customers wanted it,” said Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association (CRA). “But our patrons want a choice in accessing the information rather than the government determining how, when and where they receive the information.”

The poll suggested 58 per cent were worried that the government will go too far in its efforts to require restaurants to provide nutritional information. “This poll confirms that groups supporting the menu labeling-only approach are out of step with the public,” claimed Mr Condie. “The public is accessing information in many different and more useful ways and does not support legislation or local ordinances that restrict their access to this information.”

The counties of Santa Clara and San Francisco recently passed local menu labeling ordinances and the state Legislature is now considering two competing pieces of legislation that would establish a statewide standard for nutritional information disclosure. The CRA offered support for the creation of a statewide standard that allows for flexibility in the information display to meet the preferences of their customers but believe the requirement to place counts on menu boards is unnecessary. “Restaurants are constantly researching and talking to their patrons; it’s the nature of our industry to respond to and reflect the preferences of our customers,” Mr Condie concluded.

America has been looking at a range of ways to tackle their alarmingly high obesity rate, with menu calorie counts one of a host of potential changes. Los Angeles is placing a moratorium on the opening of new fast-food restaurants in their southern districts and trans fats are being phased out around the country.

The success or otherwise of New York legislation will be monitored carefully, with the New York City Health Department of the belief it could reduce the number of obese people by 150,000.