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[IP] FDA Considers Nutrition Labels In Restaurants to Fight Obesity (LONG)

I think its about time that we see something like this legislated.  Anyone
else wonder why the government can legislate that handicapped access ramps are
required, but nutritional information is not?

FDA Considers Nutrition Labels In Restaurants to Fight Obesity


The Food and Drug Administration has begun preliminary talks with industry
officials about a program that for the first time could lay out national
standards for nutritional-information displays in restaurants.

The plan is one of several moves the agency is considering as it tries to stem
the rising health crisis of obesity in the U.S.

Among other possibilities: changes to the labeling on packaged foods that
might give more prominence to calorie counts, and a broader program guiding
consumers on how to fit various foods into a healthy diet. The agency, which
says it hasn't settled on any plan, is set to discuss the issue at a public
meeting Thursday.

"We do not have a clear, unifying message as to what the answer is on
obesity," says Lester Crawford, deputy FDA commissioner, who is co-chairman of
an agency task force on obesity. "What the public wants to do is get a reality
check ... to have an adequate nutritional program that does not make them

Since the FDA lacks regulatory authority to require nutritional displays in
restaurants, any plan would require either voluntary participation from
companies or congressional action to change the law. While the FDA hasn't yet
decided whether to move forward with the idea, it says that the industry has
indicated interest.

Lee Culpepper, senior vice president for government affairs at the National
Restaurant Association, says the group's view is neutral. "We're going to
dialogue with FDA and see what they're thinking, and what they might propose,
and then we can react," he says. But, he adds, the industry remains opposed to
any mandatory nutrition-information plan, arguing that because diners and food
preparers often customize individual meals, such labels wouldn't be

The FDA and industry officials haven't focused on possible forms for
nutritional displays, Dr. Crawford says. The options might include tray liners
displaying information for different products, or posters, he says.

According to market-research firm NPD Group Inc., the number of meals eaten in
restaurants has grown to an average of 200 a year for each American, up from
168 in 1984. And when people eat out, they tend to eat more. While restaurant
eating represents 22% of all meals, it accounts for 38% of the food people eat
by weight.

If the FDA moves forward with a restaurant nutritional-display plan, it would
be a change for an industry that has long escaped the detailed requirements
placed on packaged-food makers. But with rising concerns about obesity,
restaurants face increasing pressure to make nutritional information more
readily available.

This year, legislators in at least six states and the District of Columbia
have introduced bills that would require chain restaurants to disclose
nutritional information. Some of the bills would require the chains to display
fat and calorie information on menus.

Those plans are tough to swallow for national chains, which could face a
patchwork of different requirements across the nation -- making a national
plan with the FDA seal of approval a far more palatable option. Still, a
voluntary program would not have legal pre-emptive power, so states could
still enact their own requirements.

Already, several restaurant companies have been making voluntary moves. "We
are always open to evaluating additional ways to provide relevant information
to our customers about balanced lifestyles, our menu and fitness," says Ken
Barun, a McDonald's Corp. vice president who is leading the chain's new
healthy-lifestyle initiative.

The chain has used tray liners in the past and plans do so again. The nation's
No. 1 burger chain also has long provided nutritional information in the form
of posters and pamphlets in its restaurants and on its Web sites.

Other major fast-food chains, including Burger King Corp. and Wendy's
International Inc., also have made nutritional information available. But
eateries that may resist providing such information are sit-down restaurants,
which generally don't provide nutritional information. Restaurateurs say it's
hard for sit-down establishments, such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, to
provide accurate information because of frequent menu changes and chefs'
discretion to reshape recipes.

At Thursday's meeting, the FDA is expected to seek input on education
campaigns and whether changes are needed to food labeling, among other topics.
Dr. Crawford says the agency might consider plans that would emphasize foods'
caloric count, and changes to labeling are "on the table" as an option. The
agency could also try to help consumers put together broader nutrition plans,
and one option might be "a Web site where we help them with meal planning."

Write to Anna Wilde Mathews at email @ redacted and Shirley Leung at
email @ redacted 

Updated October 23, 2003 12:15 a.m.

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