Some fast-food restaurants post calorie information on menus. Others offer brochures listing calories, sugar and cholesterol for those who ask. Soon, many restaurants across the country will be expected to tell their customers what’s in their food because of the new federal health-care law.
But in Prince George’s County, where many of the nearly 1 million residents suffer disproportionately from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity, County Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park) wants restaurants to do more.
Olson is proposing a bill that would require prominent display not only of calories, which the federal law would require, but also of sodium. If approved, the measure would affect restaurants with at least five sites in Prince George’s, or about 300 of the county’s 3,025 restaurants. Olson hopes other restaurants not covered by his plan would volunteer the information.
Sodium, which is used liberally in prepared food and at restaurants to help retain flavor, can be a health hazard. It is easy to quickly ingest too much, and excess sodium consumption can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. Because of the prevalence of those illnesses in Prince George’s, Olson believes that the county is a good place to require sodium disclosure on menus. The council is scheduled to discuss the bill Oct. 10.
“It is a health issue,” Olson said. “This is a consumer-friendly bill: It gives customers information. It should not be something you have to go search for.”
That might not be enough to turn his proposal into law. By insisting on posting sodium information so prominently, Olson’s bill goes beyond the requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act, which compels restaurants with 20 or more sites across the country to post calorie information on menus and menu boards.
The law allows restaurants to provide other data, such as sodium content, in a separate brochure. Smaller chains and individually owned restaurants are generally exempt.
In 2010, Montgomery County began requiring restaurants with 20 or more sites across the country to list calories on menus. About 820 of that county’s nearly 3700 restaurants are required to list calories, a county spokeswoman said.
Dan Roehl of the National Restaurant Association and Mel Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland said they support menu labeling but are leery of Olson’s bill for Prince George’s, which they said would increase costs because chain restaurants would have to produce different menus for the county.
National standards, Roehl said, are preferable because they allow mass printing of menus, which saves money. They also give consumers an opportunity “to have everything in the same format so they can compare,” he said.
A July study by the University of Maryland that polled 129 diners in Montgomery said it is far from clear that disclosing calories has changed habits.
“Women really appreciate it. Men, not so much,” said County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).
And young adults, the study found, ignore the data.
“When you are dealing with personal habits and the government’s ability to influence it, that is obviously limited,” Leventhal said.
Only a handful of other places, including California, Vermont and Philadelphia, have laws for menu labeling. Philadelphia is alone in requiring sodium content on menus and menu boards, Olson said.
Some restaurants across the country voluntarily provide calorie and other data because they say their customers want it and believe it is good for business, said Margo Wootan, head of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a longtime advocate of menu labeling.
Belinda Queen, who takes care of foster children in her Capitol Heights home, said consumers need as much information as possible to help them make better choices about what they eat.
“Anything that will help people get more healthy,” she said. “I believe it is something the government needs to do.”
But diners also need to act on the information, she said. “If it is truly going to help, people have to read the information and be willing to make a change in their eating,” Queen said.
Her community is part of an area in Prince George’s that in November was declared a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because residents has limited access to healthful food.
“They buy Oodles of Noodles because they are trying to save a buck,” Queen said.
Despite the potential obstacles, Olson says he will push for sodium labeling and will urge County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to seek a waiver from the federal rules. Philadelphia has asked for the exemption, a city health spokesman said.
“That would be worth fighting for,” Olson said.