A national menu labeling law seems to be gaining appeal, particularly in the face of more states and localities proposing their own regulations. But whether it will happen this legislative session or what form it will take is still uncertain. The National Restaurant Association sees the number of possible individual regulations as all the more reason for a federal standard, said Beth Johnson, executive vice president for public affairs for the NRA. "There's significant support for getting menu labeling and nutritional information on a national level," she said. To date, California and a handful of communities have passed their own regulations. And a dozen states have menu labeling bills on their dockets, although efforts in Maryland and West Virginia recently failed to pass. (Update: The West Virginia Senate subsequently revived a revised version of the bill.) On the national level, one of two previously considered menu labeling bills has been reintroduced during this latest Congress. The NRA has called for a national standard since municipalities first began instituting their own calorie count rules a few years ago. But it didn't support previous federal menu labeling legislation until the Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act was first introduced last fall. The LEAN Act would require restaurant chains with 20 or more units post calorie information for standard menu items on menu boards or a similar sign next to the menu board or at the point of purchase. Additional information on 11 nutritional items, including sugar and sodium, would be available to consumers upon request. The national standard would replace regulations in any state or municipality. Similar versions of the LEAN Act are now in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Both versions have bipartisan support and are gaining sponsorship, Johnson said. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at public health group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the LEAN Act has no chance of passing, however. The bill lacks the necessary support because the chairmen of the House and Senate committees handling the bills — Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Edward Kennedy— have been co-sponsors of the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act. CSPI and other public health groups have supported the MEAL Act, which has been introduced several times over the last five years but is not under current consideration. That bill has specified that restaurant chains with 20 or more units would have to post calories as well as saturated fat, trans fat and sodium content directly on menus or menu boards. Unlike the LEAN Act, the MEAL Act would not preempt menu labeling regulations in individual states. The MEAL Act was first introduced to the U.S. House in November 2003 and to the Senate in 2004. It was then reintroduced in subsequent session, including 2008, but no action was taken. Wootan said she expects the MEAL Act to be reintroduced sometime this Congress, which just began a new two-year term. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has sponsored the Senate bill previously, but his office could not confirm whether the bill is due to be reintroduced this session.
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."