NEW YORK – Burger joints beware: New York's calorie crusaders are at it again. City health officials announced Wednesday that they hope to revive their stalled plan to force fast-food chains to add calorie counts to the big menu boards that hang above their counters.
The city's original effort to put calories on menus was struck down by a judge in September, but Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said the regulation has been reworked and is ready for a second try.
"People deserve to have more information when they are ordering food," he said.
Like the previous regulation, the new version presented to the Board of Health on Wednesday would require restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell to list a calorie count for each menu item as prominently as the price.
City officials have argued that action is needed to address an obesity epidemic in the city, which they blame partly on more residents relying on fast food for a large percentage of their regular meals.
The idea, Frieden said, is to make people think twice about ordering a 1,000 calorie lunch, which for many people is about half the recommended daily total of calories.
Health officials believe that New York City was the first place in the U.S. to enact a regulation requiring some restaurants to put calorie information on menus.
Since then, other cities and states have considered similar rules. California lawmakers passed a bill similar to New York's regulation, but it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this month. King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, enacted a menu labeling rule in July.
As with the original rule, the new policy wouldn't apply to most fine dining establishments, or the thousands of family owned delis and pizza shops around the city; only chains with 15 or more stores will be covered, and then only restaurants serving standardized portion sizes that can easily be measured for calorie content.
Restaurants are, nevertheless, almost certain to sue for a second time over the plan.
New York State Restaurant Association Executive Vice President E. Charles Hunt called the proposal unfortunate.
"It goes beyond the scope of good government," he said. "It is micromanaging small business."
Fast-food companies have argued that the calorie data will clutter menus and irritate customers, who don't necessarily want to be confronted with health data.
In their first lawsuit, restaurants also argued that the health department doesn't have the authority to impose such a rule.
A federal judge agreed, to some extent. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Holwell said the initial rule conflicted with federal food labeling laws. But he also suggested that a few adjustments could resolve those legal hurdles.
The revised rule contains one major change:
Initially, the policy only applied to restaurants that had already decided to offer nutritional information voluntarily to customers. Most fast-food giants have made nutritional information available on posters or Web sites for years, and the city argued that it would be easy for them to provide some of the same information on their menus.
This time, restaurants would be required to post calorie information whether they had done so previously or not.
The city's Board of Health took the first step toward approving the regulation Wednesday by voting to publish it and hold a public hearing. A final approval vote would not take place until January.
— Associated Press