Restaurants may have to list items' calories

WASHINGTON — Calorie counts for every pizza, blueberry muffin, chef's salad or anything else that comes from many chain restaurants and vending machines would be instantly available to consumers, thanks to a few paragraphs in Congress' health care legislation.

Under the health care bills passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name would have to post on the menu or menu board the calories contained in most items.

Such information would also be available for food "sold at a salad bar, buffet line, cafeteria line, or similar self-service facility, and for self-service beverages or food that is on display and that is visible."

The requirement doesn't apply to condiments, "daily specials," custom orders or items that appear on menus for less than 60 days a year.

The restaurant also would have to make available right away, upon request, other information such as calories from fat in a product, as well as amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber and protein.

Vending machines owned by large operators also would have to have calorie labels so that consumers could see them before they bought an item. That presumably would mean that where the product is not visible, label cards would be posted on the machine.

The measure has widespread support.

"It shows the government wants to take action on obesity-related issues. It's symbolically important," said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Politically, the provision is a rare example of lawmakers from both parties agreeing on a nuance of the mammoth health care bill. Democratic leaders are trying to meld versions passed by the Senate and House last year into a final version that can be enacted into law.

There's little disagreement on the calorie counting, which is expected to take effect about a year after the legislation is enacted. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is one of the effort's main sponsors, while Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, hailed the bill as providing "concrete steps to fashion a society in which the healthy choice is the easy choice."

Not everyone sees the change as a great idea. Some see it as the government micro-managing their businesses, while others question cost and other issues.

At the National Automatic Merchandising Association, which represents the vending industry, Ned Monroe, senior vice president for government affairs, said that while "we're not opposed to calorie disclosure, we do have other concerns."

Among them are potential legal problems — for instance, what if someone attached the wrong label to a vending machine product? He also called the provisions costly.

"The vending industry is under severe economic strain," he said, and the one-year cost to achieve labeling is an estimated $56.4 million. About 7.5 million vending machines would need product labels, a task that's generally done by a senior route driver.

About a dozen states and cities have calorie disclosure requirements. But the bill, said National Restaurant Association President Dawn Sweeney, would help consumers by setting "a uniform national standard for chain restaurants."

Researchers at Yale's Rudd Center studied the potential impact. In a study published last month, they split 303 adults from the New Haven, Conn., area into groups that saw menus with no calorie information, menus with calorie labels, and menus with more detailed data, including calories and recommended daily caloric intake for an average adult.

Those in the two groups that saw the calorie labels ate 14 percent fewer calories than the other group. When after-dinner eating was included, the group with the more detailed menu labels ate an average of 250 fewer calories.