By Jacinda Howard
By the new year, King County residents will be able to weigh the nutritional value of their dine-out meals.
Restaurants began the first of three phases Aug. 1 to introduce nutritional content to menus. The measure was set in place by the King County Board of Health and requires both quick and full-service chain restaurants to provide customers nutritional information about menu items.
“The reason that is motivating us is the fact that (the United States) has an obesity epidemic,” King County Board of Health spokesman Matias Valenzuela said.
Restaurants included in a chain of 15 or more establishments
nationwide must comply with the regulation.
During the first phase, the board of health and Washington Restaurant Association are assisting food establishments in finding ways to present the information in a manner that keeps costs manageable.
Nutrition labeling could vary slightly from place to place, as establishments will have some degree of choice in how they make the information available to customers, said Trent House, Washington Restaurant Association Director of Government Affairs. Menus can be redone to include nutritional value along with the food listing.
Restaurants can also choose to provide a supplemental menu, insert or appendix featuring the information. Electronic kiosks at each table are another option.
“Each chain will tackle this individually,” House said.
Restaurant owners the WRA is in contact with have not said much about how they plan to comply, House said. Finding a way to present the information and stay competitive while doing so is a challenge each restaurant will face, he said.
The measure is supported by the Washington Restaurant Association. However, when it was first presented in July 2007, that was not the case. The original language made complying with the regulations demanding on food establishments.
“From the industry’s perspective, it was very rigid,” House said.
The board of health did not initially plan on phasing in the
requirements. Talks between the WRA and the county board of health resulted in the gradual phasing in of the plan. This gives food establishments time to balance their costs and plan for how they will comply.
“It’s very expensive to update menus and menu boards,” House said.
“We were told by some of our fast food restaurants that use menu boards that it could be $5,000 to $10,000 to replace a menu board.”
The board of health was willing to compromise and make meeting its demands easier for restaurant owners. However, the board was not willing to compromise its projected goal.
“We wanted to still maintain our priority,” Valenzuela said. “We want consumers to have information available to them at the point of ordering or before ordering.”
Providing customers with the information after they have already ordered or eaten the food is not good enough, he said. In order for customers to make educated decisions on what they consume, they need to know the nutritional attributes and downfalls of the meal, Valenzuela said.
“In the past, it has been something people have had to ask for or look for,” he said. “It has been a challenge to find that information.”
A public education campaign will be launched as the second phase of menu labeling begins in January and customers can see the measure in progress, he said. The third phase will be completed in August 2009 and will introduce nutritional content to drive-through menus in King County.
King County is among a handful of locations that have enacted this or similar legislation. New York City was the first to introduce it.
“We’ve seen this is what consumers want,” Valenzuela said. “Along with New York City, we are really pioneering with this.”
Contact Jacinda Howard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-925-5565.
For more information, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest Web site at www.cspinet.org. To view a list of locations with similar legislation, visit the CSPI “Nutrition Labeling in Chain Restaurants” document at www.cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/