What's new on menu? Labeling

Council passed a bill requiring restaurant chains to list nutritional information. An industry group was critical.

Posted: November 07, 2008

City Council, having weighed in on such health issues as smoking and trans fats, yesterday ordered chain restaurants to display nutritional information with their menus, in a bid to raise consumer awareness. After the 12-5 vote, Council broke for lunch.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, will take effect Jan. 1, 2010, and is similar to policy now in effect in New York and pending in California. It applies to establishments with 15 or more outlets, sweeping up and down the food chain: upscale national brands such as the Palm and McCormick & Schmick's; fast-food and casual restaurants such as McDonald's, Applebee's and Subway (which posts the information now); spots such as Dunkin' Donuts, Rita's Water Ice and Starbucks; and convenience stores that serve prepared food, such as Wawa and 7-Eleven. A Wawa spokeswoman yesterday said the convenience stores might include information on their touch-screen ordering system.

Independent operations - such as corner pizzerias - are exempt. "We were not about to inhibit small business," said Joseph Meade, Brown's legislative aide.

Menus must list calories, saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates and sodium. Restaurants that use menu boards or tags need to show only calories per item.

Patrick Conway, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said the ordinance offered restaurants no flexibility in how the information is displayed. Under the bill, the information must be presented in a size and typeface similar to price and food description.

The group was not opposed to labeling, Conway said, but rejected the "one-size-fits-all" approach. The group prefers other methods, such as tray liners and table displays. He said that he had discussed the measure with Brown for a year but that she would not compromise.

Paul Steck, president of the 100-unit, Conshohocken-based Saladworks chain, said the labeling law did not go far enough. "We take the position that we need to be completely transparent," he said, adding that it wasn't enough to focus on calories. "We need to [show] vitamins and minerals" as well.

Steck said the chain polled customers and found that 35 percent wanted to see nutritional information, while 65 percent did not. Saladworks, like many restaurants, now lists the information only on Web sites.

Meade said Brown began lobbying for the bill in 2006 after hearing Health Department testimony. Meade said he was sent to New York earlier this year to see firsthand the city's menu-labeling law, which is similar to Philadelphia's.

"It opened my eyes," said Meade, who compared a bowl of broccoli-cheese soup against a Buffalo chicken salad and found that the salad was the "wiser" choice. "It didn't deter me from ordering anything, but it does make you aware."

Among the bill's proponents was the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nutrition-education group. John Weidman, its deputy executive director, called it a "great public-health initiative. . . . People are saying it's making them think twice about what they're eating."

Voting against the measure were Council's three Republicans (Frank Rizzo, Brian J. O'Neill and Jack Kelly) plus Brown's fellow Democrats William K. Greenlee and James F. Kenney.

"I thought it was more of a burden on the restaurant industry," said Kenney, who cited the expense of changing menus. He said he was not vociferously opposed to it. "I'm not devastated" that it passed, he said. "Life will go on."

Contact staff writer Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.

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