U.S. menu labeling may be gaining steam

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A nationwide system requiring fast-food chains to list calories on their menus could be gaining support in Congress as more states adopt the practice and the restaurant industry concedes change is on the way, a consumer, industry and health panel said on Friday.

Laws requiring that calories and other nutritional information be posted have become increasingly popular as states and cities struggle to combat the country’s growing obesity problem while promoting health and nutrition. At the same time, lawmakers in Washington have struggled to get the practice adopted nationwide.

A bill introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Tom Harkin has stalled, according to a DeLauro aide, because of leadership in Congress and limited interest on the state level. The aide said the bill would be reintroduced in the next session of Congress.

Similar legislation has been introduced by Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware, a Democrat, and Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican.

“We think our prospects are a little better, not because of the election results, but because of what’s been going on the state level,” the DeLauro aide told Reuters.

In late September, California became the first U.S. state to require fast-food restaurant chains to list calories on their menus. Similar calorie information went into effect in New York City earlier this year, and more than a dozen states are considering similar health code provisions.

Jonathan Blum, a senior vice president with Yum Brands, said the fast food company supports a uniform nationwide approach that would apply to supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants, including Yum’s Pizza Hut and Taco Bell brands.

“This is far better for consumers and for our business than seeing a hodgepodge of different standards in different states and communities,” said Blum, who added a nationwide system would create a level playing field for all restaurants and better protect them from frivolous lawsuits.

After California passed its bill, and in response to comments from health, consumer and other groups, Yum has pledged to display calorie information on menus at its company-owned stores by 2011.

Margo Wootan, a director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said action by the states has helped spur the restaurant industry to become more interested in a national solution.

“We were not very effective asking for voluntary change,” she conceded.

The World Health Organization estimates 1.6 billion adults worldwide are overweight and at least 400 million adults are obese. That includes a third of all U.S. adults.

Obesity increases the risk of many diseases and health conditions including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure.

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