- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A senator yesterday introduced a bill that would require menus at chain restaurants to include nutritional label information, another sign that some in Congress want to fight obesity with laws.

Restaurant chains with 20 locations or more would have to disclose calorie, sodium, saturated fat and trans-fat content on all items in the menu, under the bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.

A similar bill was introduced in the House in November by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat. The Senate bill goes further by requiring labeling on vending machines and on menu boards for restaurants that do not have regular menus.

“American parents are woefully uninformed on the fat and calories their children are getting in meals at popular restaurants,” Mr. Harkin said yesterday at a press conference alongside members of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The Washington health advocacy group, dubbed the food police by critics, yesterday released a study on the amount of calories, fat and salt found in children’s menus at sit-down restaurants like Denny’s, Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel.

“If you think food at table-service restaurants are a cut above the fast-food fare, then you may want to think again,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley.

For example, a typical child’s meal at Outback Steakhouse — one of 20 restaurants surveyed — provides more than 3 times the saturated fat and calories a child should have in one day, the study said.

Ms. Hurley said Mr. Harkin’s bill, and similar initiatives in Maine, California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and the District, would give parents the arsenal to battle “sophisticated marketing” targeting children inside restaurants.

The National Restaurant Association, a D.C. trade group, said a federal menu-labeling law would ultimately hold restaurant chains liable for errors in the nutritional facts.

Mr. Harkin’s bill does exempt daily specials from being listed and allows for small variations in the serving sizes stemming from human error.

But customized orders and the human element in preparing food increase the chance of altering an item’s composition and its nutritious content, said NRA lobbyist Allison Whitesides.

Nutritional facts listed on a restaurant’s Web site or brochure are generally not completely accurate and list several disclaimers for consumers, Miss Whitesides said.

“There is not enough room on [regular restaurant] menus to put those disclaimers and not having them would hold the restaurant accountable” for mistakes in the nutritional labeling, she said.

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