Menu Bill Would Order Nutritional Information

By Mariana Minaya
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Menus in Montgomery County's chain restaurants would have to list nutritional information such as calories, sodium and fat content under a proposal submitted yesterday to the County Council.

"I know people don't want to be nagged," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), the bill's sponsor. "I just think what we want to try to do is provide consumers with more information. What they do with that information is up to them."

The proposal would require restaurants with at least 10 national locations to prominently publish the information for standard menu items. Restaurants with menu boards would be allowed to post only calorie counts as long as they could readily provide the other information.

Two other U.S. jurisdictions have such requirements: New York City and King County, Washington. The D.C. Council is considering a similar proposal.

Montgomery restaurants that already include nutritional information on menus would be required to publish the information by Aug. 1, 2008, while other locations would have an additional year to comply.

Restaurant representatives said the bill unfairly singles out their industry to blame for the nation's obesity problem. And the requirement is impractical, given the limited space on menus, they said.

"The more space we have to devote to nutritional information, the less space we have to describe the ingredients -- the kind of information that helps customers choose what they want to eat," said Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

This is not the first time Montgomery has taken a lead on health issues. In May, the council passed a ban on trans fats in foods in restaurants, supermarket bakeries and delis, effective next year. Four years ago, smoking in county restaurants and bars was prohibited.

This bill is a good follow-up to other issues the county has tackled, said council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), who co-sponsored the bill. "I think this is another important step to take to protect public health," she said.

The bill is meant to abate what appears to be the growing role of the food industry in obesity rates. U.S. residents consume about a third of their calories from eating out, according to a USDA Agriculture Information Bulletin cited in a county report. Food from restaurants and other establishments contains more calories than food prepared in the home and can contribute to obesity, the report said.

Thompson said the restaurant industry will lobby the council to find a compromise that is less onerous for its businesses.

He said restaurants prefer to list nutritional information that goes beyond the three indicators chosen by the council on Web sites or signs rather than on menus.

"We're not sure whether simply providing this information will encourage customers to change their behavior," he said. "We've seen nutritional information on food packaging since the early 1990s, yet during that time our obesity rates in the country have doubled."

The council has set a public hearing on the proposal for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18.

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