CSPI kicked off its campaign to make nutritional labeling mandatory on full-service menus at a press event showcasing a mythical meal made up of items from full-service restaurants. Jacobson displayed a Pizza Skins appetizer from UNO Chicago Grill that contained 2,050 calories and a Chicken & Broccoli Pasta entree from Ruby Tuesday’s that contained 2,060 calories and 128 grams of fat. For dessert, he trotted out a slice of The Cheesecake Factory’s Chris’s Outrageous Chocolate Cake, with 1,380 calories.
"If we’re going to deal with the epidemic of obesity and the tremendous prevalence of heart attacks and strokes, we’re going to do have to do something about restaurant foods," he said.
Actually, CSPI doesn’t want to do something about restaurant foods; it wants the federal government to do it for them, via the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) legislation scheduled to be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate this year. And it doesn’t want to actually do something about restaurant foods per se; it wants to have the government do something about nutritional information on menus. "Nutrition labeling at chain restaurants would help Americans exercise personal responsibility and encourage the restaurant industry to exercise corporate responsibility," says U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut).
Who’d have to comply? DeLauro’s bill would only affect chains with 10 or more locations.
Never mind that UNO Chicago Grill has kiosks installed in its restaurants that provide customers with a wealth of nutritional information. "Given the extent of our menu, we cannot conceive of how one could possibly include all of the information for each menu item that covers the legitimate needs of every guest, and believe our kiosk, unique in casual dining, offers the best way to keep our guests informed and safe," said Frank Guidara, president/ceo of UNO Chicago Grill, in a statement.
And never mind that Ruby Tuesday’s, a pioneer in nutritional information among casual restaurant chains, places a "Smart Eating" guide on its tables that lists the caloric counts and other information about each of its menu items, having done so since 2004.
Unless nutritional information is printed right on the menu next to each item, it’s not going to be good enough for Jacobson, DeLauro and CSPI.
The National Restaurant Association wasn’t buying CSPI’s argument. Here are the key parts of a statement it released after the CSPI report came out.
"Pointing to a select few menu items at a select few restaurants as being high in calories and generalizing that to all restaurant fare is misleading, inaccurate, and does the public a grave disservice. Virtually all restaurants provide healthful options, and many items can be customized to reduce calories and/or fat content. In addition, many national chain restaurants already provide nutrition information in ways that have proven to be most effective for that restaurant and their patrons.
"Americans...are free to choose what to eat, whether being mindful of calorie and fat intake, or indulging themselves with their favorite dishes. Our research shows that 95 percent of survey respondents feel they are qualified to make their own dietary choices, and more than two out of three (68 percent) say they are tired of the ’food police’ telling them what to eat.
"In addition, seventy percent of restaurant patrons customize their food orders, thereby varying nutritional content greatly. Posting caloric and other nutritional information on menus and menu boards would make those menus extremely cluttered, confusing and simply not helpful to those who want to make smart choices when dining out."
NRA makes a strong case, but this is going to be a war of influence, not words. Previous legislative attempts at mandatory nutritional labeling on menus have failed in a dozen or so state legislatures, and nine state legislatures will be be considering such requirements this year. CSPI has learned that swaying politicians is a lot harder than swaying public opinion.
"When I’ve worked on menu labeling bills across the country, there aren’t strong arguments against it based on the merits," CSPI’s Margo Wootan told the New York Times. "The reason these policies haven’t passed is because of politics. New York City found a way to bypass the politics by having the policy put in place by health experts."
Wooten’s referring to the fact that the city’s trans fat ban was coupled with a menu labeling requirement when the New York City Board of Health passed it last December. But New York City Councilman Joel Rivera has introduced a measure that would overturn the part of that rule that requires nutritional labeling on QSR menu boards and full-service menus. His bill would require these same restaurants to make sure that nutritional information "is available on the premises and to make clear to a potential customer that the information is available before the purchase is made." He’s also going after a tax credit ($3,000 per year for the first two years; $500 per year thereafter) that would be awarded to participating restaurants, although not to chains with more than 20 locations.
There’s no word yet on whether Rivera’s bill has the votes to pass this measure. But it is known that City Council members weren’t thrilled that the Board of Health took the initiative on the trans fat/menu labeling issue without consulting them. "This is a major policy shift, and it should have been subjected to the democratic process," one said.
CSPI says it’s speaking out because "about half a million people die every year from heart attacks and another 150,000 from strokes and obesity rates have sky rocketed over the last 20 years." We’re glad for their advocacy. However, the group doesn’t claim there would be any measurable correlation between menu labeling and subsequent reductions in stroke, heart attack and obesity rates. So why do it?
Even CSPI isn’t sure. Their "extreme eating" release includes a quote from District of Columbia council member Phil Mendelson, who is reintroducing legislation that would require chain restaurants operating in the nation’s capital to list calories on fast-food menu boards, and calories, saturated plus trans fat, sodium, and carbohydrates on printed menus. Here’s what he said:
"Obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases shorten the lifespan of too many of our citizens, and exact an enormous share of our health-care dollars," said Mendelson. "Menu labeling, like any one thing, won’t solve the obesity epidemic, but it’s one more thing that would help consumers make the healthier choices, if that’s what they want to do."
Whoa! Even the guys introducing menu-labeling laws aren’t convinced their efforts will make a difference. Be glad the NRA is on the case to point these inconsistencies out and, better, work the back rooms to help make sure laws that would cost you a bundle yet have no discernible effect on public health won’t see the light of day.