Earlier this year, the city of Cleveland banned added trans fats at restaurants citywide. But the ban didn’t stand; the state of Ohio banned the ban in its proposed state budget, adding an amendment that would prevent municipalities from regulating ingredients quick serves could use.

The battle in Ohio marks a new twist in the debate over who has the right to legislate food in lieu of a federal regulation: cities, states, or nobody at all.

City and state food bans have made a splash over the last couple of years. In November 2010, San Francisco banned toys in kids’ meals that didn’t meet certain nutrition guidelines. Last summer, Baldwin Park, California, banned new drive-thru construction.

Quick-serve chains that want to do business on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, meanwhile, must be willing to change their design, menu, uniforms, and more so that they fit in with the island’s historic style. And several states and cities had employed menu-labeling regulations before the national regulation that passed with health-care reform in March 2010.

Some of the bans have had a national impact; the piecemeal calorie-labeling legislations, for example, largely encouraged the national regulation. And San Francisco’s toy ban stirred up a healthier kids’-meal movement that culminated with McDonald’s announcing its new, slimmed-down Happy Meal and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) launching its “Kids LiveWell” initiative.

But many of the bans are confusing quick-serve operators and legal authorities across the country.

Richard Phillips, director of franchise development at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, does not believe cities or states should be able to regulate food. The national barbecue chain has had to deal with new laws in several of its markets, and Phillips says the variety of laws makes it difficult to keep up.

Companies have a hard time doing business in an environment where laws change from location to location. Food policy, Phillips says, ought to be handled at a higher level.

“We would like to see it regulated federally,” Phillips says. “I think it would benefit us. We would have a consistent program that we could roll out to all our franchise owners.”

Dickey’s hired a third-party program to help. “We’ve partnered with Ecolab’s EcoSure program,” Phillips says. “Before we can open a restaurant, all the compliances have to be met.”

EcoSure helps Dickey’s restaurants stay compliant with everything from menu-labeling laws to health inspections.

The cost of third-party help, however, may be too much for smaller chains or independents.

John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group, says today’s mix of laws is especially hard on these smaller operators.

“They don't necessarily have a food scientist on board that can do calorie and grams of fat sampling, they have to contract that out to a food lab,” Gordon says.

In order to simplify the legal framework, groups like the NRA have supported national standards on issues like menu labeling. But even on other issues, cities have limited authority, and some states have made sure to restrict the power cities have.

Alabama and Florida passed laws prohibiting their cities from overly restricting “unhealthy” foods. And thanks to a new Arizona law, no city there will be allowed to enact a San Francisco–style Happy Meal toy ban.

Melissa Cummings, legislative affairs specialist with Domino’s Pizza, says the best thing operators can do about this confusing mix of laws is stay informed. She says that operators who want to voice their opinions effectively and keep abreast of the shifting legal landscape should turn to their local restaurant associations.

“They do a great job keeping up,” Cummings says. “I’m on the phone every day with them.”

By Robert Lillegard

Legal, News, Dickey's Barbecue Pit, Domino's, McDonald's