- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

The D.C. Council added several amendments yesterday to a bill that would force restaurant chains in Washington to put nutritional information on their menus.

D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, in June introduced the Nutritional Information at Restaurants Act, which would require chains with 10 or more locations nationwide to put total calories, trans fat, saturated fat and sodium information next to each menu item at their District locations.

Mr. Mendelson said the information would promote healthier eating habits and would reduce the District’s rising obesity rate.

At the bill’s first public hearing yesterday, Council member Sandra Allen,Ward 8 Democrat and chairman of the Human Services Committee, said the bill would allow “a generous margin of error” for the labeling and would exempt menu items that are customized, such as daily specials.

Self-serve salad bars and buffets also would be exempted from the bill that critics say is cumbersome and costly.

“I bet a lot of people won’t pay any attention to the nutritional facts on the menu, but this bill is not for them. It’s for people with medical conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure who are eating out and want to eat healthy,” Mrs. Allen said.

But Council member David Catania, at-large Republican, called the bill “a waste of time.”

“It’s hard enough to run a business in the District without having to worry about how many grams of fat are in the hamburgers,” he said.

Mr. Catania also challenged the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C. nonprofit health-advocacy group that helped Mr. Mendelson draft the legislation, to pay the expenses that restaurant owners would have to absorb to test their products and reproduce their menus.

Margo Wootan, the center’s nutrition-policy director, dismissed the idea.

“Most restaurant chains are franchised. The headquarters generally pays for nutritional analysis of menu items and even prints the menus.”

Local restaurant owners noted the bill would discourage smaller restaurants from expanding in Washington.

Geoffrey Tracy, owner of two Chef Geoff’s restaurants in the District, said the bill would derail his plans to expand to 10 restaurants in the next several years.

“If you calculate every item on our lunch, brunch, dinner entree, dessert, wine and cocktail menus, it would be hundreds of hours and dollars. I work 16 hours a day. I don’t have any more money or hours to spend on frivolous legislation like this.”

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams wanted more conclusive evidence that the reformatted menus would improve eating habits before he would endorse the bill, said Theodore Gordon, senior deputy director for environmental health science and regulation in the District.

“The mayor is concerned about the bill’s fiscal impact on the restaurant industry,” Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Gordon said his department would need more funds for enforcement and for changing restaurant inspection forms.

Similar bills have been introduced in Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Texas and California but none has been signed into law.

Last week, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, introduced a nationwide measure that would require nutritional labeling at restaurant chains with 20 or more locations.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, plans to introduce a similar bill in the Senate soon.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also is considering a voluntary and even mandatory program for restaurants to disclose calorie counts on menu boards.

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