California Becomes First State to Require Chain Restaurants to Post Calories

California is now the first state to require restaurant chains to reveal how many calories are in their standard menu items.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation Tuesday that supporters say will give consumers the information they need to order healthier dishes when they eat out and will combat obesity, diabetes and other health problems related to overeating.

"The way Californians order food is about to change," said the bill's author, Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, at a bill-signing ceremony.

The new law initially gives chains with at least 20 restaurants in California a choice. Starting next July 1, they can either list calorie counts on menus or menu boards, or they can provide preprinted brochures disclosing the calories, fat, salt and carbohydrates in the dishes and drinks offered during at least half the year.

Beginning in 2011, the calorie counts in standard menu items would have to be listed on menus and indoor menu boards. Drive-through customers will have to be offered brochures providing nutritional information about standard menu choices.

Schwarzenegger vetoed a broader version of the bill last year that would have required chains with at least 14 restaurants to list calories, fat, salt and carbohydrates next to their standard menu offerings.

Restaurants with just menu boards would have been required to post calorie counts next to their standard offerings, providing written information about fat, salt and carbohydrates only if customers requested it.

Schwarzenegger said that bill was inflexible and inequitable and that many restaurants were already providing nutritional information to customers "in a variety of ways."

The National Council of Chain Restaurants said it was disappointed that Schwarzenegger signed the bill, complaining that the measure discriminated against larger chains. Eighty percent of California restaurants wouldn't be covered by the bill, it said.

"What's really needed is a consistent, uniform, nationwide standard so that consumers from Florida to Alaska have a clear understanding of the nutritional content of food in restaurants," the council's president, Jack Whipple, said in a statement.

New York City, which banned trans-fat-laden cooking oils from all restaurants last year, is believed to be the first U.S. city to enact a regulation requiring calories on menus. The calorie posting rule took effect in May, but legal action delayed enforcement until July.