Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Restaurants welcome a new menu labeling plan

Capitol Hill lawmakers have cleared the way for national menu disclosure standards by combining the pet bills of opposing sides into a new proposal that appears acceptable to all parties, including the restaurant chains that would have to abide by the law.

The compromise measure, jointly announced by the major stakeholders this afternoon, would mesh a labeling bill steadfastly opposed by the industry, Sen. Tom Harkin's Menu Education and Labeling Act (a.k.a. MEAL), with an alternative that was put forth last year by the restaurant business and its allies on the Hill, the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act (LEAN in sound bites). The breakthrough was acceptance by all parties of limiting the info disclosed on menus and menu boards to calorie counts. The other information that Harkin and his allies want chains to provide, like salt and fat content, would be provided in written forms available at the point of purchase.

The requirement would be binding on outlets of chains with at least 20 branches.

Sen. Tom Carper said the new measure, which has yet to be given a clever acronym as a name, has bipartisan support. Carper was a key sponsor of the LEAN Act, which the National Restaurant Association and other industry groups helped to craft.

The compromise bill is expected to be a component of any healthcare reform legislation that arises in the Senate in the next few weeks. The passage of such an omnibus measure would be an historic event, which suggests it will likely be hotly debated and undergo considerable consideration before anything is actually put on the books.

But the emergence of a bill less stringent than MEAL was hailed by the restaurant industry as a breakthrough. "We are pleased that industry, government and the public health community were able to come together and partner to reach a workable solution to this important issue," Clarence Otis, CEO of Red Lobster and Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants Inc., said in a statement.

“We thank the Senators for their bipartisan leadership and for recognizing the importance of legislation that meets the needs of both the restaurant industry and our customers," Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said in her statement. "We look forward to working with Congress to enact this legislation."

Initial reports failed to reveal when the new labeling bill would take effect if passed, or what protections it would extend to chains that worry about legal challenges of the calorie counts they might post. Because food items can vary in size or even sugar content, a precise analysis might be impossible to deliver, they contend. They fear that consumers will allege in court that they were misled by the information provided.

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