MEAL act would only affect chains with 20 or more outlets

Fast-food and other chain restaurants would be required to disclose more nutrition information if legislation introduced today by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) became law. The Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) bill would require fast-food chains to list calorie counts on fast-food menu boards, and would require table-service chains to list calories, saturated plus trans fat, carbohydrate, and sodium on printed menus. The bill applies only to standard menu items—not changing specials—and only to chains with 20 or more outlets. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced he will introduce a companion measure in the Senate later this year.

The legislation was praised by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which today released a new survey showing broad public support for restaurant menu labeling. The poll, conducted for CSPI by Global Strategy Group, as well as an earlier poll sponsored by Harvard Forums on Health, indicate that two-thirds of Americans support requiring chain restaurants to display calorie content on menu boards and menus.

According to a new CSPI report, Anyone’s Guess, nutrition information is needed on chain restaurant menus since Americans are getting about one-third of their calories from outside the home. Americans eat out twice as often as they did in 1970, according to CSPI, and restaurant foods are an important contributor to rising rates of overweight and obesity.

“Most of the largest chain restaurants don’t provide nutrition information, and those that do make it hard to find, hard to read, or available only on web sites,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “People have good nutrition information in supermarkets, but people can only guess what they’re eating at chain restaurants.”

The restaurant industry won a special exemption in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act—the 1990 law that requires manufacturers of packaged foods to list nutrition information on labels. Several of the fast-food chains that provide posters or brochures in restaurants only did so to avoid legal action in 1986 by several state attorneys general. This year, restaurant industry lobbyists are trying to keep nutrition information off menus by raising misleading red herrings, according to CSPI.

“This legislation wouldn’t affect restaurants with fewer than 20 outlets, so mom and pop diners and fancy gourmet restaurants would not be required to test or label anything,”Wootan said. “Chains like Burger King, Denny’s, and Red Lobster have menus that are largely standardized. A McDonald’s Big Mac has 590 calories no matter where you get it.”

When people eat out at restaurants, they don’t eat as well as at home. They consume more calories and saturated fat, fewer nutrients, like calcium, and less fiber, according to the report. Children eat almost twice as many calories in an average restaurant meal than in a home-cooked meal.

The nutritional content of popular restaurant items varies widely, and in one study, even professional dietitians failed to correctly estimate the calorie content of popular restaurant meals, according to the CSPI report. Just one large McDonald’s shake, for instance, has more calories (1,010) than three McDonald’s cheeseburgers (990 calories).

Some menu items have more calories and fat than anyone would guess. A single slice of carrot cake from the Cheesecake Factory chain has 1,560 calories and 23 grams—more than a day’s worth—of artery-clogging saturated fat, according to the report.

“If chain restaurants can provide nutrition information on web sites, they can put calorie numbers on their menus,” Wootan said. “For nutrition information to be useful, it needs to be at the point of decision-making. Few fast-food consumers want to lose their place in line to squint at a hard-to-read poster.”

Legislation similar to the MEAL act is pending in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and in the District of Columbia. And recently, officials of the Food and Drug Administration have been publicly discussing the importance of nutrition information in restaurants.