Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Now Look Who’s Involved

It started out with labeling calories for chain restaurants in New York City and grew to include sodium, carbohydrates, saturated fats, and trans fats in counties and states all over the country. Now who’s up to the plate? The independents; and you would never guess who the allies are in this battle.

It wasn’t long ago that long time menu labeling rivals the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and the Center for Science in the Public interest (CSPI) joined forces to support the LEAN act. The act was a good compromise for both because it only affected (perhaps will affect) restaurant chains with 20 or more locations throughout the country and would (will?) affect about 25% (roughly 1 million) of all US restaurants. But some say that 25% is just not enough.

Recently, Yum brands (yeah, Yum Brands, as in KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut…big chains) introduced a bill that would fill the “gaps” that they claim the LEAN act leaves by requiring smaller restaurants to also post nutrition information. The proposed regulations would impact restaurants with 3 or more units, and/or restaurants that do more than $1 million in annual sales. Now, the CSPI, who have previously been labeled the “food police” are lobbying for the legislation with more lenient regulations while a major restaurant group is lobbying for more stringent and wide spread government intervention. I never thought I’d see the day.

I’ll admit that while I sympathize with restaurants who have had to step out of their areas of expertise to cater to these nutrition labeling laws, I do appreciate that they apply to larger chains only. For the most part the currently affected restaurants are those who already have nutrition information, or are those who have the means by which to generate it.

I have a few concerns with requiring independents to post nutrition information:
1.) Database analysis (the more affordable option in nutrition analysis) requires recipe specs, and many independent restaurants don’t have standardized recipes.
2.) Because of lack of standardization among recipes many independents change the composition of their offerings from plate to plate thus further skewing the accuracy of the any analyses.
3.) Many independent restaurant menus change from day to day to cater to what’s in season and what people are requesting. Daily nutrition analysis is a tall order.

Most of you out there know much more about the interworkings of both chain and independent restaurants than I do (my experience as a waitress during college only extends so far).

In the past, I've posed the question: “Does nutrition information have a place on the menu?”. I meant it in regards to larger chains, and many of the responses I received were in favor of menu labeling laws. I’m curious to know if the feeling is the same if independents are involved.

Alyson Z. Mar, RD