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Business Costs & Regulation

Restaurants to Count Your Calories

Vending machines will also have to tell you what you’re eating.

A provision buried in the health care bill before Congress would require chain restaurants to post nutritional info on their menus and wallboards. That’s right: In the not too distant future, if you decide to chow down on a bacon cheeseburger and fries, the whopping calorie count will probably be staring at you from the menu board. Eateries also would be required to provide upon request additional data on fat, sodium, dietary fiber, carbohydrates, protein, etc. The proposal would apply only to chain restaurants with 20 or more locations.

Lawmakers hope that by letting consumers know the caloric content of each menu item, they will be more inclined to opt for lower calorie, more healthful items, thus helping to combat the growing obesity problem in the U.S.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, calls the provision “a critical part of a broader reorientation to a society of prevention and health promotion.” Harkin, along with Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) promoted this proposal earlier in the year after reaching an agreement with the restaurant industry and public health organizations. “Obesity is a growing problem in our nation, where more than one in three Americans are overweight,” says Carper.

The provision is in both the House-passed version of the health care overhaul and the Senate bill now under debate. Implementation of regulations would be required within a year of the bill’s enactment.

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The restaurant industry signed on to the proposal in order to get a uniform national standard, to replace the growing patchwork of varying state and local ordinances requiring disclosure of calories and nutritional information.

The vending machine industry will also feel the impact. Firms that operate 20 or more machines would be required to post calorie counts for each item. Industry lobbyists are working to ensure that the bill’s language won’t require them to label each button on a machine, which they say is too difficult. They want to be able post the calories of all items on the front of the machine. Otherwise, the proposal would pose a substantial financial hardship on the industry, says Ned Monroe of the National Automatic Merchandising Association.

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