Food for Thought 2009
G. Douglas Andersen, DC, DACBSP, CCN

 

 

People who care about health want information when they purchase food. Knowledge of what youíre actually putting in your body is important to an increasing percentage of the population. Getting various segments of the food industry to provide more information has kept advocate groups busy for many years. It appears their hard work is paying off and the winners will be the consumers. On the Package In the fall of 2008, after six years of industry-driven delays and political wrangling, country-of-origin labeling (COOL) laws originally passed in 2002 finally went into effect with a six-month transition period set to expire in March 2009. Beef, pork, chicken, lamb, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables along with selected nuts (peanuts, pecans, macadamias) and whole ginseng must be labeled to disclose where it came from. In the case of animal products, they cannot carry a USA label unless the livestock was born, raised and slaughtered here. Since products like hamburger often contain a mixture of beef from more than a single source the package must disclose it. This law was opposed by industry because they said it would cost millions of dollars to make labels. The USDA opposed it for the same reason. Conversely, a recent poll showed that 95% of the public in the United States felt they have a right to know where a food product they purchase comes from.1 There are loop holes in the law. For example, packaged vegetables containing more than one type (broccoli & cauliflower) are exempt because they are considered a processed food. Meats that are marinated or pre-cooked in some manner are also excluded. A raw peanut must show country of origin, but if it is dry roasted it becomes processed and is immune from the law. Pork must have a label of origin, but once itís processed into bacon or ham, the exemption kicks in. On the Menu When New York City banned restaurants from using trans fats two years ago, I would have been just as satisfied with a forced disclosure of all nutrition information rather than simply pronouncing a single ingredient illegal. This is not to insinuate trans fats are healthy (they arenít), rather, it is because they arenít the only ingredient restaurants use that can be unhealthy for some people. For example, a person may think twice before ordering an entrťe if they knew it contained over 50 grams of fat or 3000 mg of sodium. Menu disclosure will not only help those who want information to make better choices, it will motivate some establishments to re-work recipes and make them healthier. Even though polls and surveys show nutritional information on menus is favored by a great majority of the people, it has taken force in the form of legislation to get the industry to disclose what the public feels it has the right to know. Menu Laws are Spreading Currently, over 20 cities and states have passed laws that require restaurants (mostly large chains ranging from 10 Ė 20+ outlets) to publish nutrition facts on their menus. These vary from calories only (in New York City) to calories saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates and sodium listed on menus in Philadelphia. The groundswell of new and upcoming requirements has caused the National Restaurant Association (NRA) to modify their position on the issue. After years of using every reason including the following: - the cost of printing new menus - the threat of lawsuit (if preparation differences* make what is published differ from what is analyzed. - people who dine out donít care about, or want to read nutritional information on a menu - the expense of calculating the nutrition facts The NRA realized neither the public, lawmakers, or public health advocates were buying their disingenuous arguments. Furthermore, the true reason for opposition --fear of losing business-- hasnít occurred in New York city since it became the first municipality to mandate that (in restaurants with 15 or more locations) the total calories for each item appear on the menu. Lobbyists employed by the industry are now promoting the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act (LEAN), a bill that sets national standards for nutrition information on menus for restaurant chains with 20 + outlets. LEAN will also supersede the growing number of local mandates the most recent of which was approved in California. The NRA realized it will cost much less to follow one set of rules rather than different guidelines across the nation. The exact regulations of LEAN (as proposed by the restaurant industry) will undoubtedly be modified after consumer groups review the fine print. *Most laws take into consideration variation by publishing a range (item X is 500-550 calories) or state totals are within a given % and do not include extraís. are Preliminary Feedback An online survey of 299 New Yorkers was done by Technomic Inc.(a restaurant industry research group) on August 27-29 2008 to measure their reaction to calorie disclosure on menus 4 months after implementation.2 The results were as follows: 86% approved of calorie information on menus. 64% had been to at least one establishment that was affected by the law. 84% read the calorie information. 84% of those who read the data were surprised. 97% of the surprised people said the calories were higher than expected. 75% said the calorie disclosure had some effect their ordering. Comment Whether or not the food industry discloses information about their products by choice or by force, it is quite clear their customers feel information should be provided I believe COOL and LEAN are steps in the right direction and establish a base on which to build on. As consumers come to expect product information, food sellers not covered by legislation will voluntarily comply if their information blackout costs them business. Hopefully the food industry will realize that providing information will only hurt them if it shows what they sell is harmful to their customers. And since businesses who sell food would never want t to harm their clients, the way to build goodwill and protect the public at the same time is to disclose data sooner rather than later. 1. Zogby International Survey 8-9-07 2. www.astho.org/pubs/ConsumerReactiontoCalorieDisclosure