Make caloric data available nationwide

Posted May 12, 2009, at 7:26 p.m.

Recently the Health & Human Services Committee heard the arguments both pro and con on the idea of including caloric information on restaurant menus to reduce obesity in Maine. This was the fourth time in six years that the Legislature has reviewed this issue.

The current legislation would mandate that chains of 15 or more restaurants, operated under the same brand name anywhere in the nation, must show the caloric content of each menu item including beverages right on the menu, menu boards or drive-through displays.

Restaurants are a hospitality venue; dining out is not an educational opportunity. It just doesn’t fit. Not everyone wants to read the caloric content of their anniversary dinner.

We fully appreciate that many diners would like to know what is in their food. We are in the hospitality business. We get it. But, each customer should get exactly what they want. Some want all the information possible. Some want none and are, in fact, offended by seeing it. We disagree with any requirement to put the calorie information directly on menus or menu boards. It is just too “in your face” to be part of the hospitality environment.

We think there’s a better idea.

We are supportive of the federal legislation called the LEAN ACT currently before Congress with the active and enthusiastic support of the National Restaurant Association, the state restaurant associations from around the country and from many chain restaurant organizations.

The federal legislation would offer much greater information than that planned under the Maine bill. The LEAN ACT would require chains to make all of the federally required grocery labeling information readily available to the consumer in several specified formats but not directly on the menu. The LEAN ACT would require the same data in all states, rather than a patchwork quilt of rules throughout the country.

Here are a few facts that the Restaurant Association feels are compelling:

Maine is not 1st, 5th, or even 10th in the national obesity ranking. It’s the 34th state in the nation.

Of the 21 meals consumed per week, on average, only four of those meals are consumed in restaurants. That leaves 17 meals — 81 percent — to be eaten at home. Legislative insistence that restaurants are to blame for obesity is unfounded.

Nutritional labeling has been available on grocery products for 19 years during which time obesity has increased 74 percent. Information does not improve obesity levels.

Only 13 percent or about 455 restaurants would be captured by the menu labeling mandate in Maine. Remember, only four meals per week on average are eaten outside the home and considering Maine’s diverse geography not everyone lives close to a chain restaurant. Most Mainers would be hard-pressed to visit a chain restaurant more than once or twice during the week. One or two meals per week cannot have any meaningful impact on obesity.

Making a real difference in obesity must come from an individual commitment to a healthy lifestyle: Balance in nutrition, consistent physical activity, and moderation in consumption.

Providing tools such as nutrition education and psychological evaluation, access to affordable recreation and exercise, and comprehensive physical education in school is a far more proactive strategy to combat the complex problem of obesity.

Additionally, readily available nutritional information on brochures, electronic kiosks in restaurants and on restaurant websites as outlined in the federal LEAN ACT will surely be a less financially burdensome mandate for restaurants to endure than a hodgepodge of varied requirements passed by state governments and local jurisdictions.

Richard A. Grotton is president & CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association.

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