Common Sense for Menu Labeling

CNN explores the ins and outs of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act recently passed by the House.
February 12, 2018

WASHINGTON – To hear its opponents talk, the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act will make it more difficult for consumers to make informed choices about what to eat at restaurants and other foodservice vendors, CNN reports. But supporters hail the legislation, passed last week by the House and supported by NACS, view the bill as giving food establishments a less rigid way to share nutritional information.

“This bill, at its very core, is about flexibility. Flexibility for businesses to meet the requirements of the rule and present this calorie information in a way that makes sense for them and their customers,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who introduced the measure. “This legislation provides flexibility in how restaurants provide the nutritional information. It makes it easier for customers to actually see and understand the information because it's displayed where customers actually place orders, including by phone, online or through mobile apps. ... By bringing this rule into the 21st century, customers can trust that they're getting reliable information in a way that is easy to access and is customer-user friendly.”

Currently, retailers with 20 or more locations have until May 7 to comply with putting calorie info on prepared food they offer or serve. The new legislation modifies that by allowing businesses to put calories-per-serving in items meant to be shared rather than listing the total number of calories. The measure also permits some retailers, such as takeout chains with the majority of their customers consuming the meal off-site, to post the information online only.

Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that the bill will make it harder for consumers to know how many calories are in restaurant food. But, he added, “On the flip side, for not just demand but supply, restaurants are mindful of their customers being more health-conscious. There's a lot of movement towards this, and menu labeling is just one big piece of the puzzle in providing more transparency.”

Scientific studies have produced a mixed bag of results on menu-labeling and consumer behavior. A review of 53 studies appeared to indicate that knowing the calorie counts didn’t influence consumer behavior at fast-food restaurants. “Overall, when you are looking at average consumer response to labeling, there doesn't appear to be much difference in calories purchased before and after labeling,” said Dr. Jason Block, a general internal medicine physician and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, who co-authored the review. “But some people clearly do respond to labeling, and labeling is nearly universally popular, irrespective of political affiliation.”

NACS has long supported changes to the current menu-labeling laws, and has been encouraged by the House passage of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act. Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations at NACS, urges the Senate “to expeditiously take and enact this legislation.”