Will You Stand Up for Menu Labeling?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Americans live busy lives and eating away from home has become a way of life for many of us. Surprisingly, studies have found that one third of our calories and one half of our food dollars go to food sources outside of the home. The dailySpark launched the Diet Friendly Dining and Food on the Run series, to help our readers make informed decisions about what they purchase when dining away from home.

On a previous blog I asked the question, "what do you wish casual dining restaurants would do differently?" Many of you shared a similar sentiment as BAMOM19 when she posted, "I wish they would all offer healthier choices, but at the very least should be required to post the nutritional content of all their dishes!"

What if I told you the quest to get nutrition information on menus started in 2003? Would you wonder why you still don't routinely see the information where you dine?

The Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act was first introduced to the 108th U.S. Congress in November 2003. It was introduced "to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ensure that consumers receive information about the nutritional content of restaurant foods." At that time it followed the Congressional process, was read twice and then referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Since all proposed bills and resolutions die at the end of each Session of Congress and are cleared from the books, modifications of this bill have been made and reintroduced numerous times since 2003.

The most recent bill was reintroduced to the first session of the current 111th Session of the Congress last month. The Howard M. Metzenbaum MEAL Act was reintroduced "to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to extend the food labeling requirements of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 to enable customers to make informed choices about the nutritional content of standard menu items in large chain restaurants."

At the same time, the restaurant lobbyist have been hard at work and introduced a competing bill, the Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act of 2009 in March 2009. This bill was introduced "to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to nutrition labeling of food offered for sale in food service establishments." It was first introduced in 2008 to the last Session of Congress but died in committee at the end of the session. As of today, both the LEAN Act and the MEAL Act have been read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions for review.

This is where politics comes in to play. With two competing pieces of legislation being considered while support is divided, the likelihood of any decision being made this time around seems very unlikely. The restaurant industry opposes the proposed MEAL Act while many health groups oppose the proposed LEAN Act. The largest reason the health community opposes the LEAN Act is because it includes measures that would nullify any state and local actions currently in place and would prevent any additional local and state measures in the future. This blog is NOT intended to be political but too simply inform you a about the legislative process that is currently taking place.

According to information from The Center for Science in the Public Interest, 78% of Americans support menu labeling while only half of the large chain restaurants provide any nutrition information about their menu items. After so many years of trying to influence change nationally with little progress, we are seeing things begin to change on the state and local level thanks to the leadership of New York City.

Last year New York City began requiring restaurants to provide basic nutrition information on menu boards, printed menus and food displays. They were the first US city to independently initiate a menu labeling system. Public reaction has been positive and many people have been surprised by the calorie counts of the foods being offered. Last week, dailySpark Guest Blogger, Birdie Varnedore, shared how "cool" she thought New York City was because of this new law.

The Bottom Line - Menu labeling allows people to make informed decisions when eating away from home. It allows people to "vote with their wallets" related to their restaurant and food preferences, which is likely the biggest reason the restaurant industry is so opposed. While it will likely take local, state and/or federal legislation to make this information routinely available, it doesn't have to. Patrons can request or even demand that this information be provided voluntarily. When mandates are put in place through legislation, it is always way more costly and time consuming than when things are done voluntarily. Perhaps the more we nutrition minded people request or even demand accurate information at the time of purchase in the places we choose to dine and spend our money, perhaps the sooner we will see voluntary menu labeling that will help us improve and maintain our health.

I think the blog comment by BIGGIRL208 makes a great deal of sense. She shared, "why blame the restaurants? They are responding to market demand. When "low carb" was in fashion, menus started featuring low-carb entrees. When low fat was in style, salads made it on to the menu - do you remember when salads were few and far between when you looked at a menu? Given that dining out (not fast food) is usually either a celebration or at least a desire to eat "tastier food", I really am not surprised at what I find on menus. It's up to us customers to start asking for different choices if we don't like what's on offer!" The same can be said for asking for nutrition information when we are ordering. What if we ALL started asking the server about the calorie, fat and sodium content of menu items when we were placing our order? At first they would likely tell us the information isn't available and try to pass it off. What if we asked to speak to the manager about the information? The manager probably wouldn't have the information either, especially for casual dining chains, but imagine if they had to be put in the uncomfortable position of not being able to provide the information numerous times each shift. Do you think they would begin to tell their superiors that they are being asked "frequently" about nutrition information for menu items?

The bottom line to me is that the power does not reside with the local, state or federal government to make change happen. The power resides with US, the nutrition minded people willing to stand up and ask and even demand that we be provided with basic nutrition information for our health in return for our hard earned dollar. I believe we CAN make a difference if we stand up together with one voice and make our desires known. As long as we continue to stay silent and wait for the politicians to make a decision that is best for them instead of demanding from restaurants what is best for us, we could be waiting another six years for information that could be provided voluntarily to us in six months.

What specific actions do you think patrons could take to persuade the restaurant industry to voluntarily provide basic menu labeling information? What are YOU willing to do to help influence change?