A Food Fight Over Calorie Counts

Public health officials want caloric content listed on menus. The restaurant business is biting back

A battle is brewing over control of one of the hottest pieces of real estate in the restaurant business: the menu. On one side are public health officials, desperate to combat an epidemic of obesity. They want chain restaurants to display the number of calories their offerings contain next to each item. On the other side is the restaurant industry, which contends that displaying the numbers could confuse consumers.

The fight is part of a larger war that pits the food industry against what its advocates call the "nutrition police," who seek to control what people eat. Indeed, many health experts have shifted their emphasis from tobacco to diet as Public Enemy No.1. And restaurants, finding themselves on the defensive, are drawing on the strategies tobacco companies honed, in some cases using the same advisers and industry-funded organizations.

Calorie counts are just the latest front. New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and a handful of other local governments have passed bans on restaurant use of trans fats, and in Los Angeles there has even been discussion of "food zoning"—barring new fast-food eateries from high-obesity neighborhoods. But it is "menu labeling" that restaurants now view with the most alarm. On Jan. 22, New York City voted to require that calorie information be posted on chain-restaurant menus as of Mar. 31. That prompted John Gay, chief lobbyist at the National Restaurant Assn., to blast an e-mail to state restaurant trade groups saying the association is considering a national response.

From Hawaii to Massachusetts, more than a dozen state and local governments are considering putting calories front and center on menus. San Francisco will hold hearings this month, and a law passed last year in Seattle goes into effect Aug. 1. To stave off new laws and overturn existing ones, the industry is marshaling a range of tactics. Last year the New York State Restaurant Assn. challenged an earlier New York calorie-labeling law, retaining Arnold & Porter, longtime counsel to tobacco giant Philip Morris (MO). The result was a pyrrhic victory: A federal judge struck down the law in September, essentially because it applied to too few restaurants. The new law, which applies to chains with 10 or more outlets nationwide, fixes that.

In interviews and prepared statements, representatives of Burger King (BKC), Dunkin' Donuts, and Uno Chicago Grill said that providing detailed nutrition information through such means as the Internet and posters in restaurants is the best way to inform consumers. Health advocates beg to differ. Notes Margo G. Wootan, a nutrition scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest: "You don't see Burger King putting the prices for Whoppers on posters back by the restroom."

So what if a McDonald's (MCD) menu tells customers that a large chocolate shake contains more calories than two Big Macs? Or a Quiznos menu lets a patron know that its large tuna melt weighs in at 2,090 calories—a full day's allotment for a typical adult? (Quiznos notes that it offers lower-calorie items.) The restaurant industry argues that there's no good scientific evidence that this would lead to a reduction in obesity, and further, that it may lead diners to base decisions on calorie counts alone. That could mean, said Dunkin' Donuts in a court filing, that patrons might "not consider that the item may have protein and other nutrients that may contribute to a balanced diet."

Even surrogate groups with populist names are getting involved on restaurants' behalf. Offering testimony against menu labeling in New York was a rep from the Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington-based not-for-profit initially funded by Philip Morris, and now backed largely by food and restaurant companies. On its Web site, the CCR rails against "food police" and proclaims that "Americans should still have the right to guilt-free eating." The battle is joined.

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