- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Restaurant chains nationwide would be required to include nutritional content on their menus and menu boards under legislation proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat.

The bill would require restaurant and fast-food chains that have 20 or more locations to put trans-fat and saturated fat, calorie and sodium information beside each item on the menu.

Mrs. DeLauro said the Restaurant Information Act of 2003 will better educate customers about the foods they order and promote healthier eating habits.

“People need to have that information readily available to them when they are ordering, not buried in brochures or on Web sites,” Mrs. DeLauro said.

The bill, for which Mrs. DeLauro is seeking co-sponsors, mirrors other state measures that have been introduced this year in the District, New York, Texas, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and California. Mrs. DeLauro hopes to introduce the bill later this month.

“This is an issue that is catching on across the country. More people are reading the labels at the supermarkets and making healthier decisions, and they should get the same information at restaurants,” Mrs. DeLauro said.

But Congress has already turned down efforts to label restaurant food when it passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in 1990.

That law was the first to require food manufacturers put nutritional labels on their packages.

“Congress didn’t require labeling [on the restaurant industry] then because it was bad idea, and it’s even less practical today,” said Steve Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, a Washington trade group.

Mr. Anderson said 70 percent of menu items in restaurants are customized, making standardized food labels for each meal nearly impossible.

“If a restaurant put a little extra helping on a meal, and didn’t disclose that on the menu, it would have misbranded the item, and trial lawyers would start swooping in to sue,” he said.

Restaurant companies also face high costs to test their products and reformat menus, Mr. Anderson said, adding he could not estimate any costs.

Mrs. DeLauro said larger restaurant chains have the resources to cover sampling and menu costs that “won’t be too prohibitive.”

But Mr. Anderson said most fast-food franchises are individually owned and have 20 or fewer employees with $500,000 in annual sales.

“This would target the mom-and-pop operations the bill is supposedly exempting,” he said.

However, the bill could safeguard larger fast-food chains that have been targeted for obesity-related lawsuits in the past year.

One main argument by lawyers has been the restaurant industry’s unwillingness to disclose nutritional content on menus.

“That may certainly be a byproduct because the issue then is in the hands of the customers and they can’t claim they didn’t know what they bought,” Mrs. DeLauro said.

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