Legalizing the Menu
by Toni Tarver
In the United States, nutrition labels provide information about the amount of calories, level of sodium, and other nutrient facts of packaged food items. Presumably, the panel was introduced to serve as a helpful tool in the battle to decrease the trend of overconsumption among consumers. However, consumers now dine out more than ever at restaurants, which had never listed the nutrition information of menu items prior to recent legislative efforts. After the passing of a landmark menu-labeling law in New York, City, state and local governments began to pursue similar legislation. This proved to be challenging for restaurants with locations across the country because labeling laws vary from state to state.
In Session 121, “What’s on the Menu? The New Federal Menu Labeling Law—Challenges and Opportunities,” Joy Dubost of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) indicated that most restaurants are supportive of the federal menu labeling law. This is mainly because a federal law brings uniformity to menu labeling requirements, allowing restaurants to design one menu that adheres to one set of requirements. But she is not sure whether it will make much of a difference in what consumers choose to eat. “There is currently no conclusive proof that consumer behaviors change when calorie information is available on menus,” she said. This is a valid point: Since the implementation of the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods, the number of overweight and obese Americans has increased. And as Dubost pointed out, taste and price are the top two factors consumers consider when deciding what to eat; healthfulness comes in at a distant third.
While the NRA is enthusiastic about most aspects of the labeling law, the organization is not exactly pleased with the exemption of hotels, airplanes, and trains from the law’s requirements. Geraldine June of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration elaborated on these exemptions, stating that the FDA has proposed that movie theaters and other outlets may not be covered by the regulation implementing the law. June stated that the FDA welcomes the public to submit comments on the proposal. Moreover, restaurants do not need to list nutrition information for custom-ordered meals and special menu items.
Lisa Carlson of Unilever Food Solutions provided the perspective of restaurant suppliers on the menu-labeling issue. She said that the old-school philosophy with respect to menu items was somewhat similar to the U.S. Pentagon’s policy: Don’t ask; don’t tell. But now restaurants and suppliers have embraced transparency. “Be prepared to tell all,” she said, when it comes to providing details about where food comes from, how it is prepared, and whether it fits into one’s daily caloric allotment.
Although these efforts may not be the magic cure for all of America’s health and weight issues, they are tools that food services providers can use to help health-conscious consumers achieve their goals.