Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Helpful Information? Not all agree

Regulators' appetite for calorie counts is about to extend beyond restaurants to thousands of other places that offer food, including airplanes, movie theaters and convenience stores.

Janet Adamy discusses federal government plans to expand the posting of calorie counts at restaurants to include thousands of other places, including airplanes, movie theaters and convenience stores. The expansion stems from provisions in the health-care overhaul enacted in March. The government wants calorie listings posted to make it easier for consumers to select healthier options, and the restaurant industry backed the move so it could avoid a patchwork of local ordinances that are developing.

So far, the expansion of the calorie counts beyond restaurants has drawn praise from nutrition advocates but push-back from industries that say the original legislation was never intended to hit them.

"People don't go to movie theaters for the primary purpose of eating," said Gary Klein, a vice president for a group representing theater owners. "Why aren't ballparks covered? You think the food served at ballparks is healthy?"

The health-care law said chain restaurants with 20 locations or more are required to post the caloric information on their menus. That requirement took effect when President Barack Obama signed the law, but the places that serve food aren't expected to begin complying until penalties kick in next year.

In preliminary guidelines released last week, the Food and Drug Administration said the scope of the law stretches beyond restaurants to encompass airlines, trains, grocery-store food courts, movie theaters and convenience stores that qualify as chains. Within grocery stores, the agency said, it is considering including salad bars, store bakeries, pizza bars and delicatessens. Stadiums aren't listed since they aren't chains.

For consumers, the change marks the next installment of nutrition labeling requirements that swept across the packaged food industry in the 1990s. About 20 cities or states have enacted or passed local ordinances requiring calorie postings on menus since New York City pioneered the requirement in 2008.

Health advocates say the change could be a powerful tool in fighting the obesity epidemic, a top initiative in Washington since first lady Michelle Obama made childhood obesity her signature cause in February.

"Everybody's going to be a little bit better informed, and that's a good thing," said Lou Sheetz, executive vice president at Sheetz Inc., an Altoona, Pa., convenience store chain with 380 outlets in six states.

The chain is preparing to post calorie information at kiosks where customers order food. "In all likelihood, it's going to have a negative impact on those items that had a higher calorie count than people thought," said Mr. Sheetz. But that will be offset by higher sales of healthier items, he predicted.

The early guidelines suggest grocery chains could have to post caloric contents for bulk foods sold in supermarket aisles, sandwiches assembled at the deli and fish sold at the seafood counter. Stores say it's nearly impossible to give useful information on calorie contents at salad bars because consumers determine their own portions.

Source: Wall Street Journal 8/31/10

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