Sen. George McGovern now believes that "On the whole, quick foods are a nutritious addition to a balanced diet."

McGovern's remarks, at the first of three hearings he is holding on food labeling, came as a surprise to many people. Michael Jacobson, director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest is 'deeply troubled" by them.In a letter sent to the senator this week, Jacobson expressed dismay that "one of the nation's most astute and ardent advocates of good nutrition endorsed the food served at fast food and other franchised restaurants." He urged McGovern "to correct misinterpretations left by your recent statements...."

In an interview last week, McGovern explained his position: "There's nothing wrong with eating a hamburger or a piece of chicken," he said. "It's no violation of dietary goals to make an occasional trip. Nobody's recommending that you eat there every day. But it's not correct to say what they're serving is junk."

Exactly what is served at fast food restaurants is unknown, partly because of widespread confusion over nutritional labeling regulations as they apply to restaurants.

Under a 1973 law, manufacturers who make nutrition claims for their products must provide nutrition labeling. And those labels must follow a specified format for calories, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals.

If no nutritional claim is made for a product, then nutrition labeling is voluntary. The regulations were enacted for packaged foods, purchased in grocery stores, not eaten in restaurants.

The fast food industry wants to make nutrition claims for some of its products, but does not want to follow the nutrition labeling regulations set down for packaged foods.

McGovern convened the meeting with representatives of the restaurant industry to hear their side of the story. He said: "... Under the current regulatory approach to labeling, the fast-food industry is unable to correct the perception of their food being low in nutritional value."

Representatives of McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken were in complete agreement, though Pizza Hut has managed to provide posters with the nutritional content of its five bestselling pizzas.

McDonald's vice president, Norman Axelrad, charged that government regulations have had "a chilling effect" on voluntary corporate efforts to provide this information. The Food and Drug Administration has taken strong exception to McDonald's claim.

In 1974, McDonald's asked FDA to simplify the requirements for offering nutrition information. According to Axelrad, McDonald's petitioned FDA, asking them "to acknowledge that restaurant food... was exempt from the regulation. As an alternative, we requested permission to advertise the nutritional value of a specimen meal, aggregating the required information on all the items in that meal on a single nutritional panel, and to permit posting of that information on labeling and advertising." Specifically the company wanted nutrition labeling for a meal of two hamburgers, a package of french fries and a shake.

According to Taylor Quinn, associate director of compliance at FDA's Bureau of Foods, "We gave it to them, just like they asked -- almost. They wanted an outright exemption from anything, but we did provide that they put it in a nutrition label format."

Quinn said that in addition to wall posters and table tents, nutrition labeling would have to be provided in another form so that the purchaser would have it at the point of consumption, which, more often than not, is away from the restaurant.

Axelrad said, "This 'point of consumption' requirement was particularly onerous."

Contrary to Axelrad's testimony at the McGovern hearing, Quinn said that every single item would not have to carry nutrition labeling. The way the regulation reads, as long as the format requested by McDonald's was followed, "nutrition information would not be required on the label of each article of food."

McDonald's contended at the hearing that if substitutions were made in the sample meal "such as a soft drink for a shake... we would have to be careful that the information about the specimen meal did not accompany the purchased food," Axelrad said.

Quinn disagrees: "I can't understand what their problem is," he said.

Despite concern about interpretation of FDA regulations, Pizza Hut provides nutrition information posters. It is not on the packaging, the firm says, because its products are not packaged.

According to Quinn, even if Pizza Hut is out of compliance with its regulations, "we don't have the kind of manpower to go out and do anything about restaurants. Besides, you can't force nutrition labeling on a product that doesn't have a label. That's kind of asinine. Secondly I imagine what they are saying is right."

Kentucky Fried Chicken offers a nutrition information brochure, when it is requested. But John Mann, a company vice president, told McGovern: "Proposed and existing regulations keep us from going beyond the initial activity unless congressional assistance is forthcoming.

"If we could, we would be willing to display posters in our stores. These posters would list the nutritional content of our three-piece dinner."

According to FDA's interpretation of its regulations, Kentucky Fried Chicken is free to put up posters, as long as the company also provides the same information for carryout.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission has proposed rules to govern nutrition advertising. The three fast-food industry spokesmen complained that if FTC makes rules about nutrition advertising, they might be different from what FDA is doing already. That made Quinn angry, too. "We are working together with FTC all the time on that," he said.

The one point on which Jacobson and McGovern agree is the need for nutrition labeling. Mann from Kentucky Fried Chicken testified that it is a "myth that food cooked at home is somehow better than food prepared in restaurants." But in his letter to McGovern, Jacobson noted some of the differences: "Ingredients may look similar to those at home," he said, and he points out the meat at Pizza Hut is extended with vegetable protein. And he said some of the fast food shakes are made with cellulose gum, microcrystalline cellulose, artificial colors and flavors."

When McGovern asked the witnesses what the industry was doing to combat overnutrition, Axelrad replied if someone ate three meals at McDonald's, he or she would be consuming 2,640 calories. What he did not say is that only a male over the age of 12 could afford to eat that many calories without gaining weight. The maximum recommended daily caloric intake for a young adult female, for example, is 2,000. It decreases as she grows older.

Even McDonald's specimen meal contains 1,030 calories.

When McGovern asked what the fast-food industry was doing to help people with hypertension, Axelrad said: "The sodium content of our meals is no greater and no less than what is eaten at home,"

To which McGovern responded. "I think that's true, but it's probably too much either way."

The problem with fast foods, according to many nutritionists, is not whether they provide adequate amounts of certain important nutrients, but whether most people can afford to take in an excess amount of calories, fat and salt in order get those nutrients.