Meal Act Seeks Nutritional Labels for Fast Food

A group popularly known as the "food police" is hot on the trail of fast-food restaurants, demanding that calorie counters be added to menus of big chain operators.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (search), known for its exposés on popcorn butter and Chinese food, has joined up with members of Congress to introduce a bill requiring restaurant chains to list on their menus the calorie content of their food.

The Menu Education and Labeling Act (search), or MEAL Act, introduced in the House Wednesday by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., would apply to any restaurant chain with 20 or more locations. The end result would be menus that resemble the now familiar "nutrition facts" panel on packaged food labels. The labeling would include listing calories, saturated plus trans fat and sodium on printed menus and calories on menu boards.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is planning to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

"So many people are getting suckered into the supersize choice — supersize fries, supersize burgers, supersize soft drinks," Harkin said. "We're being led to believe that bigger means better value. The harsh reality is that if you consistently choose to supersize, the odds are that soon you will be supersize."

Lawmakers and CSPI say they are motivated by the growing obesity epidemic in America. Nearly 65 percent of Americans are obese and the teen obesity rate has tripled in 20 years, DeLauro said. Obesity costs the nation $117 billion a year in health care and related costs.

Lawmakers trace the obesity trend to restaurants, which are serving a growing number of meals to consumers. According to spending figures, people put down 46 percent of their total food bill in restaurants compared to 26 percent in 1970.

But the National Restaurant Association (search) says restaurant food isn't making people fat — a lack of exercise is equally or more responsible than consumption. They add that another law mandating calorie counting in restaurants would do nothing to change that.

Still, as lifestyles change and Americans eat more foods made in places other than their own kitchens, the idea makes sense, say proponents of the bill.

"In the past, when eating out was an occasional treat, few people had to worry about the nutritional quality of restaurant foods. But that's not the case today," said CSPI's Margo Wooten. "People are choosing to eat out for more and more of their meals, and it really makes up a very large proportion of the diets, of not only adults, but also children, so that now, Americans on average are eating about a third of their calories from restaurants."

Lawmakers also point to the growing popularity of the "Nutrition Facts" label they mandated to be included on all packaged foods sold in America.

Restaurants were exempted from the 1990 law, and rightly so, says the National Restaurant Association (search), because it wouldn't be practical. Oftentimes, restaurants change their menu items from day to day.

"We feel this legislation is sort of redundant to what a lot of companies are already doing by voluntarily providing this information in a manner that's workable for them and workable for their consumers," said Allison Whitesides of the National Restaurant Association.

For those who do want to count calories at restaurants, there is a way. Many restaurants, including the big chains, post nutritional information for their menu items on their company Web sites.