Interlinking of the obesity epidemic with an increase in consumption of away-from-home meals prompted the health authorities to introduce menu-labeling legislation, which specifies that nutritional information should be revealed on restaurant menus. The legislation aims to educate consumers about the nutrition level and calorie content of the food they order from restaurants. This has particular relevance in the context of fast-food outlets, and information on the menu would help them make better choices at restaurants. However, the restaurant industry vehemently opposes this policy. Under this circumstance, this paper attempts to critically analyze whether the consumer advocate group’s claim overrides that of the American Restaurant Association’s contentions. “Although obesity and poor dietary habits are complex multi-factorial problems, away-from-home food has been identified as one likely and an important contributor of obesity” (Wootan and Osbon, 266-268) because “more Americans than ever eat out, and restaurant foods tend to have higher calorie count than home-cooked meals.” (Borut). US adults’ eating-away-from-home food expenditure “comprises about 50%,” and several prospective studies have shown that frequent eating from fast-food restaurants is associated with excess weight gain over time, compared to infrequent restaurant use. Distressed by the obesity epidemic and obesity-related medical conditions, predominantly among children and adolescents, the American Medical Association (AMA) resolved that “calorie content, in addition to other nutrition information, be displayed on menus and menu boards in fast-food and other chain restaurants,” effective from June 2007. The Menu Education and Labelling Act of 2007 require restaurants and similar retail food establishments to post a sign informing their customers that certain foods on their menu may be high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium.
Food was eaten from fast-food outlets, and other restaurants is associated with high calorie, saturated fat, lower fiber and calcium content, lower fruit and vegetable intake, and greater consumption of hamburgers, French fries, and soft drinks. Considering the health consequences and because of the prevalence of diet-related diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc., “nutrition labeling is a public health necessity.” (Key US Food Label Rules Lag Behind Other Nations). A literature review by Harnack and French indicated that calorie labeling may have a beneficial effect on food choices one makes away from home. Restaurant Associations argue that the ‘Nutritional Labelling and Education (NLEA) Act of 1990 pre-empts the regulation, and “forcing the restaurants to communicate nutritional information violates the First Amendment rights of its members.” (Booth). Labeling is not a solution to the complex problem of obesity, and “neither obesity nor fitness can be legislated.” (Menu Labelling Opposition Facts: Neither Obesity nor Fitness can be Legislated).
The promoters of menu labeling mandate “used faulty studies,” and “definition in the legislation is vague” discourages restaurant ownership and discriminates amongst like businesses (RAWM). The restaurant association adds that the already sluggish hospitality industry will shrink further with the introduction of stringent regulations, and the cost of implementation will be expensive to a restaurant. Further, the regulation will limit menu, the majority of menu analyses would be inaccurate, and thus the public would be misinformed. In addition, the introduction of 1994 federally mandated nutrition labeling on most packaged foods has not decreased the obesity problem in America.
The supporters claim that the ‘federal nutritional labeling acts leaves plenty of room for states and municipalities to make and enforce regulations’ and it will ‘not chill free speech.’ The rule ‘neither prevents restaurants from making, nor required them to make, nor limits the circumstances under which they may make, descriptive claims characterizing the nutrient content or health effect of their food.’
Independent observers opine that for protecting public health, the federal, state and local governments have the “legal authority to legislate and regulate” menu labelling laws by amending the Nutrition Labelling and Education Act of 1990, and “there is no First Amendment barrier to requiring restaurants to disclose the nutritional make up of the menu items offered for sale.” (FAQ: Are There Legal Barriers to Requiring Restaurants to Provide Nutrition Information).
The survey conducted by Burton et al (2006) showed that “levels of calories, fat, and saturated fat in less-healthful restaurant items were significantly underestimated by consumers. Provision of nutrition information on restaurant menus could potentially have a positive impact on public health by reducing the consumption of less-healthful foods”. “As nations strive to harmonize food labelling requirements on an international basis, efforts should be made to ensure that requirements are harmonized in an “upward” direction and reflect regulatory policies that best provide consumers with the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions.” (A global agenda for action: A report by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, 2).
A global agenda for action: A report by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. 1998. Web.
Booth, Bonnie. New York City Wants Calories put on Menus: Can States Step in. amednews.com. 2007. Web.
Borut, Donald J. Cities Say Restaurant Nutrition Information Crucial in Fighting Obesity. Bio-Medicine. 2007. Web.
FAQ: Are There Legal Barriers to Requiring Restaurants to Provide Nutrition Information. Yale University: Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity. 2008. Web.
Harnack, Lisa J and French, Simone E. Effect of Point-of-purchase calorie labelling on restaurant and cafeteria food choices: A review of the literature. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 5.51. 2008. Web.
Key US Food Label Rules Lag Behind Other Nations. CSPI News Release. 2008. Web.
Menu Labeling Opposition Facts: Neither Obesity nor Fitness can be Legislated. RAMW: Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. 2008. Web.
Wootan, Margo G and Osbon, Melissa. Availability of Nutrition Information from Chain Restaurants in the United States: Background. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2006. Web.