Industry News | August 15, 2008

Menu Labeling Spreads in California

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Another area of California decided to require chain restaurants to post nutritional information on menus Tuesday. Following San Francisco and Santa Clara County’s lead, San Mateo County is mandating restaurants with at least 15 locations in California post information including calories, sodium amounts, and fat content on menus. Fast-food units must post at least the total number of calories per item on menuboards.

” It’s another tool in the toolbox,” says Supervisor Jerry Hill, a co-sponsor of the ordinance. “It’s to try to assist our residents to eat healthier and to provide better education and information so they can be better informed to make more appropriate choices for themselves.”

The new rule will affect about 30 restaurants in San Mateo and about 450 if the other cities in county made the same ordinance. Hill says he’s writing letters to the 20 mayors of the county’s other cities to encourage them to consider the rule.

The California Restaurant Association (CRA), which just a year ago opposed menu labeling, says it's “come full circle” and would like the mandates to be statewide, rather than decided on by counties. “Chain by the very definition means more than one unit, so you’re talking about folks who own restaurants across many localities in California,” says Lara Diaz Dunbar, senior vice president of government affairs for the organization. “[The CRA] wants consistency not just for the restaurateurs but for the customers so they know what to expect each time instead of a patchwork of different ordinances.”

It’s not just consistency operators should be worried about, however. There is cost involved in meeting the requirements. Menuboard changes and food testing are both costly and are the main reasons mom-and-pop locations are not being targeted by the recent mandates. Although Hill says it would be ideal for all restaurants to be compliant, not just those with at least 15 units, he says the lack of portion control and uniformity between locations, make it difficult for smaller restaurateurs to post nutritional information.

Both Hill and Dunbar say that it is ultimately the consumer who is in control. “Our restaurateurs respond to consumer demand,” Dunbar says, adding that the CRA is doing its best to work with state officials to get a consistent ruling.

In the meantime, Hill is interested to see what kind of nutrition his regular lunch order provides. “I usually eat a Chicken Caesar Salad,” he says, “but a Whopper with cheese may be more nutritional for me than the salad. But I don’t know that and I’d like to.”

--Blair Chancey

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