Moving forward with menu labeling — at last

Moving forward with menu labeling — at last
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When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, lawmakers included a provision requiring chain restaurants, grocery stores, and other food retail establishments to disclose calorie count and nutritional information for menu items.

This provision promised to make life easier for people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic conditions — who often need to track the amount of sodium and carbohydrates they consume. Easily accessible calorie counts would also help ordinary consumers make healthier choices.

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Menu labeling was a win-win proposition, reflecting over a decade of negotiations between public health advocates and the restaurant industry. Consumers overwhelmingly support greater transparency about nutrition. And chain restaurants, which had been forced to juggle a variety of laws passed by cities and counties that mandated menu labeling before the federal government, would benefit from the simplicity of a uniform national requirement.

 

The FDA issued regulations to implement the menu labeling requirement in 2014, but repeatedly postponed enforcement. Last May, only one day before enforcement was finally due to begin, the Trump administration delayed it for yet another year. Our organization, Earthjustice, filed suit on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Consumers’ League because FDA did not give the public any opportunity to weigh in before the delay took effect.

Now there is a happy ending. Last month, more than seven years after the health care overhaul, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan approved an agreement that could pave the way for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to finally begin enforcing the menu labeling requirement.

This agreement is an important victory for public health.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese. In addition to causing significant individual suffering, the health effects of obesity rack up high medical costs. Experts predict that the treatment of obesity-related diseases could total $344 billion in 2018, accounting for more than 20 percent of U.S. health care spending.

On average, people in America get one-third of their total calories from food prepared outside the home. People tend to consume more calories and saturated fat — but fewer fruits and whole grains — when eating out. Kids, in particular, eat about 55 percent more calories at restaurants than they do at home.

The problem isn’t merely a lack of education or nutrition-savvy. According to a study conducted by CSPI, even professional dieticians significantly underestimate the calorie content of restaurant meals.

This isn’t surprising. Without access to calorie labeling, who would guess that a muffin from one “healthy” chain has almost twice as many calories as a scone? Or that a slice of big box store cheese pizza is more caloric than a slice of that store’s pizza with pepperoni? Or that, even without the buttery topping, a large order of movie theater popcorn contains nearly 1,000 calories — half FDA’s recommended daily budget for adults?

Menu labeling makes a difference. When calorie contents are posted on menus, consumers make lower calorie choices for themselves and their children. Restaurants respond by offering more healthful and nutritious options. The environment benefits too. When restaurants offer smaller portions and consumers order only what they can finish, less food ends up in landfills — which could help slow climate change.

After we filed suit, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement pledging that the agency will neither weaken the menu labeling requirement nor further delay enforcement. We’re happy to take the agency at its word — cautiously. We’ll go back to court if FDA fails to keep its promises. But for now, we’re grateful that FDA has finally committed to giving consumers the information they need to protect their health.

Peter Lehner is a senior attorney and Alexis Andiman is an associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming Program, which works to improve our nation’s food system, from crop selection and farming practices to food processing and accessibility.