When state legislators in West Virginia sat down in a House committee last week to dine on fatty doughnuts and breakfast biscuits, a video of the proceedings hit YouTube and earned mention by “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno.
The irony of the now viral meeting was that the legislators snacked on high-calorie foods just as they killed a contentious bill that would have required most restaurants in the state to post calorie counts on their menus in an effort to encourage healthier eating.
Across Appalachia and in other areas of the country, rising health care costs from obesity-related illnesses are alarming, with insurance costs rising to treat such conditions as heart disease and diabetes.
The West Virginia menu-labeling law, opposed by some restaurateurs and their lobbyists over costs and some residents who cried foul over government intrusion, was meant to give consumers better information on the nutrition of what they were eating, said state Sen. Dan Foster, a Charleston Democrat and a Harvard-educated surgeon and physician administrator who sponsored the legislation.
“I’m not a humorless person, but I think it seemed a little inappropriate and didn’t show proper respect for the health of the West Virginia people,” he said. “I think this is very important in dealing with health care costs and all the consequences of that, all over the country but more so in our area where you have a particularly high instance of overweight people and obesity, and you see firsthand the problems of chronic illness.”
Successful menu-labeling laws are springing up across the country as states and localities seek to change the rising culture of dining out and overeating - and their consequences.
Congress is expected to take up legislation sometime this year that could force a national standard for menu labeling and disclosure, offering diners more specific information on what they order at the point of purchase. The measure has the support of a public interest group and the National Restaurant Association.
“I do believe menu labeling’s time has come,” said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington. “There is a lot of momentum around this issue.”
Beth Johnson, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association, agreed: “I think that the environment is very positive for nutrition disclosure. We do think the opportunity is ripe to get this done.”
In New York City, where the first citywide menu-labeling law was enacted last year, residents praised the visible calorie counts. Knowing that a bakery cookie contains 600 calories, for example, is strong incentive to choose another item that packs less of a caloric wallop, consumer surveys have found.
“I love the new law about posting calorie counts,” said Elizabeth Wharton, 23, a personal trainer who lives in Manhattan. “I don’t think it necessarily will inspire me to eat healthier, because I will still want that cupcake no matter how many calories it is. But it allows me to make healthier choices when I choose to.”
Food industry lobbyists have decried the West Virginia law, saying it adds an extra expense to restaurants already losing money in the economic downturn.
The CSPI said that argument doesn’t have much teeth. Caloric counts are available via inexpensive software programs for independently owned restaurateurs, making it easy for them to comply, Miss Wootan said.
“I think this argument really is a smoke screen,” she said. “Restaurants regularly change their menus to add new products or to put in new marketing pushes to make them look fresh. The next time a restaurant updates its menu, they can add the calorie information.”
Miss Wootan and other nutrition specialists said small changes in a person’s daily calorie count can make a difference in weight loss or gain over time. Studies have shown that people who dine out regularly consume 300 to 400 more calories a day, Mr. Foster said.
“If you eat just 50 more calories each day, that equates to 4 pounds per year,” he said. “Changing things a little could have a dramatic effect on weight and health care costs.”
Obesity rates in the U.S. have risen “dramatically” in the past 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2007, Colorado was the only state in the nation to have an obesity rate of less than 20 percent. The CDC said 30 states had such a prevalence equal to or greater than 25 percent while Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee hit or exceeded the 30 percent mark. By contrast, in 1990, 10 states had an obesity prevalence rate of less than 10 percent and no state was over the 15 percent obesity threshold.
Childhood obesity also is on the rise. A study this month in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that nearly one in five American 4-year-olds is obese, with the highest rates found among Hispanic, blacks and American Indians.
Legislation to add menu labeling has been introduced in states such as Oregon, Texas, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois, and in cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago. A law is expected to take effect in Nashville, Tenn., next year. But the requirements are different.
“New York City has different requirement from the state of Colorado, for example. So if you go to the exact same chain of restaurant in Seattle you will potentially get different information than you might in New York,” said Miss Johnson of the restaurant association. “Consumers have told us that what they want is consistent information, regardless of what state or locality they are in.”
The National Restaurant Association supports the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act, which was reintroduced in the Senate on March 10 and has six sponsors, three from each party. A companion House bill is sponsored by Reps. Jim Matheson, Utah Democrat, and Fred Upton, Michigan Republican. The legislation, which amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, would require chains of more than 20 food businesses to advertise the number of calories on a menu board or a sign, in a menu or as part of a menu supplement. It also requires a statement of suggested daily caloric intake on a menu or menu board and pre-empts any state laws that are not identical to this legislation.
The CSPI supports a bill called the Menu Education and Labeling Act, which has been introduced several times before by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, both Democrats, and is expected to be reintroduced this year. It requires restaurant chains of more than 20 units to post calorie, fat and sodium content on menus or menu boards, but doesn’t pre-empt menu-labeling laws already enacted in individual states.
• Andrea Billups can be reached at email@example.com.
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