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. …