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Health Care Legislation Will Require Calories on Restaurant Menus

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By Denise Reynolds

Part of the 2500-page health care legislation signed by President Obama on Tuesday is a requirement for all large restaurant chains – those with 20 or more outlets - to put calorie information on their menus and drive-through signs.  The law will also require labels on food items in vending machines.

The language is based on the MEAL Act, a bill previously introduced in 2003 by Senator Harkin of Iowa, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration.

"For nearly 20 years, consumers have benefited from nutrition labels on packaged foods, but have remained in the dark about the nutritional quality of their restaurant meals," said Sen. Harkin in a statement.  "The passage of menu labeling closes this glaring loophole, giving consumers the information that they need to take control of their own health."

The calorie information for most restaurants is already available in restaurant literature and on their websites, but the new measure will make the calorie content more visible at the point of sale in an effort to deter Americans from eating high calorie items and possibly begin to combat the obesity epidemic in the US.

The restaurant industry is said to approve the legislation in part to create consistency among their restaurants across the nation.  Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said that they were “supportive because consumers will see the same types of information in more than 200,000 restaurant locations across the country.”

The measure was modeled after one that has already taken effect in New York City and was planned for 2011 in California and Oregon.  More than a dozen states have been considering similar efforts.  Some studies indicate that when faced with calorie information, people will often make a more healthful choice.  

“I think it is an historic development,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. “Consumers spend more than half their food dollars outside of the home and when people eat away from home they eat more and they eat worse. And part of the reason may be because they don’t know what’s in fast foods, and they’re often shocked to find out.”

The date that consumers will see the new information has not yet been set, but it should be no later than one year from now.  Part of the law will put the Food and Drug Administration in charge of the effort.

Foods that are exempt from the law will include daily specials and limited-time items.

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