Restaurants Face New Laws on Menu Nutritional Claims

Article excerpt

By Steve Everly

The Kansas City Star

After years of wrangling, turf fights and legal battles, the federal government is about to regulate nutritional claims made on restaurant menus.

Starting next year, restaurants in most cases will have to adhere to strict definitions when they use terms such as "low fat" and "sodium free" to describe a menu item. Moreover, they'll have to be prepared to prove it.

"If they do make the claim they have to back it up," said Brad Stone, a Food and Drug Administration spokesman.

In the future, if you see a chicken dish described as low calorie, you will know it has no more than 120 calories for a serving weighing slightly more than three ounces.

Restaurants that don't make nutritional claims will not be affected by the new federal rules. The proposals also won't require restaurants to provide the extensive and across-the-board nutritional analysis now required on many packaged food items purchased in the supermarket.

Still, the restaurant industry says the new requirements are onerous enough that many restaurants will simply stop making any nutritional claims about the food they serve.

"It will surely reduce the number of restaurants that will even use health or nutrition claims," said Wendy Webster, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

Part of the debate now going on is the cost of complying with the new regulations. The FDA estimates the cost at up to $13.5 million. The industry disputes that, saying it could cost $1,000 to analyze a recipe and prove it meets a nutritional claim.

The Food and Drug Administration says it expects to release final regulations later this year and will give restaurants up to a year to comply. It now is reviewing comments it received about the proposals before publishing the final rules.

During the Bush administration, restaurants were exempted from the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act. Public interest groups, however, criticized the decision and filed a lawsuit to reverse the exemption.

One of the most vocal critics was the Center for Science in the Public Interest. As an example of the need for more regulation, it pointed to a menu item in the "light" section of a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Washington. The so-called "light" dish was made of ground beef and pork chili, topped with pepper jack cheese and served with a sour cream garnish.

"A restaurant menu should be a guide for consumers and not a work of fiction," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, referring to restaurant menus in general.

In June, the FDA seemed to agree, and said it would begin regulating nutrition claims made by restaurants. …