Still, Wootan sees the NRA's support of the LEAN Act as a positive development for national menu labeling. "It's a good sign that the restaurant industry and the public health community both agree that a national menu labeling requirement is needed," she said. "We're much closer together than we have been in the past. We're still not on the same page, but we're getting there." Points of dispute Johnson said the NRA has opposed the MEAL Act because as it was introduced in previous sessions, it didn't offer the consistency and flexibility of the LEAN Act. The latter allows operators to choose how to present calorie information, while still keeping it at point of purchase. Wootan, however, said that offering chains that flexibility actually would create inconsistency. The LEAN Act would not present consumers with nutritional information in a standard format, requiring customers to search for the data. Nutrition experts, like registered dietitian Kelly O'Connor, said QSRs' current practice of providing nutritional and calorie information on tray liners and online isn't effective because few consumers take the time to look for it. "Having the information side by side with the item is probably the easiest way to have consumers learn what they are really buying," said O'Connor, who is also a diabetes educator for Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Also, the nutritional information itself won't mean much if consumers don't know what a healthy intake of each of these items looks like, she said. "Mandating posting of the calorie content is a good start," O'Connor said, adding that consumer education is another important piece of solving the obesity epidemic. But she cautioned that the responsibility for educating consumers doesn't lie entirely with restaurant operators. The NRA also opposes the MEAL Act's lack of a federal preemption because it would not prevent differing regulations in various states and localities as exist now, Johnson said. But Wootan dispelled that concern. "Once there's a national requirement for restaurant labeling, states and localities would stop passing bills," she said. Operators hope for single standard Quick-service chains, like Dunkin' Donuts, see a national standard as an answer to the complexity of complying with regulations that can vary by locality. The brands' operators are finding it costly and disruptive to meet those different standards, said Steve Caldeira, chief global communications and public affairs office for Dunkin' Brands. Like many QSRs, the company has provided nutritional information through in-store brochures and on its Web site for several years.
Customers have noticed that menu boards in New York City, where chains must post calories on menu boards, are different than in other cities, he said. A national standard, then, would provide "a consistent, complete nutritional picture for consumers across the country, so we do not have regulations in New York City that are differing from regulations in California and Massachusetts," he said. In California, chains with 20 or more locations must post calorie counts for standard menu items on their menu boards. In contrast, Philadelphia requires posting calories and nutritional information, including sodium and fat content, on menu boards. While research by consumer research group Technomic found that 82 percent of restaurant-goers in New York let calorie postings affect their ordering, Dunkin' Donuts hasn't seen that much difference. "For the most part, we have not seen a significant impact on the buying decisions of our customers since we have posted the caloric information," Caldeira said. "We have seen a minimal decrease on select bakery items, but we are encouraged by the positive reaction and steady growth of our DDSMART menu featuring better-for-you food and beverages."