Federal law negates California calorie labeling law

November 21, 2011 8:51:58 PM PST
You may have noticed at many restaurants, right there next to the price they now tell you how many calories there are in each dish. California law requires chain restaurants to put a calorie count on the menu, but there's been a lot of confusion since Washington got involved. Seven On Your Side tries to help straighten it out.

California was the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring calories on menus of chain restaurants that have 20 locations or more, but the feds came in with a law of their own and threw the whole thing into chaos. So which restaurants post calories and which ones won't? And do you want that information served up with your food?

There is something new on the menu here at Il Fornaio in Burlingame and it isn't the raw beef carpaccio. It's the calories.

"We have nutritional facts, calories, we've done it for our entire menu, including our dessert menu," said Dalton Archie, the general manager for Il Fornaio in Burlingame.

Il Fornaio and a growing number of chain restaurants are now telling customers right on their menus just how many calories they are about to scarf up.

"We have a 22-ounce porterhouse steak which is the highest calorie count at 1,400," said Archie.

Menu labeling took off last year when California passed a law requiring chain restaurants to post calories next to food items. The aim is to fight obesity. However, the law was stopped in its tracks ironically when President Barack Obama signed the health care reform bill.

"We had the state law that was still in effect, but the federal law pre-empted the state law," said John Rogers from Sacramento County Environmental Health Department.

Here's what is happening: the health care reform law requires calorie posting too and it says states cannot have a different calorie law. That threw California into confusion. The law here must be exactly the same as the federal law, but that's still in flux. The feds still have to adopt specific rules which probably won't happen until next summer. Until then, there's no law in place.

The confusion was evident at Rubio's Mexican restaurant. Calories were posted, then taken down, now they're up again.

"There was some confusion in some quarters of the restaurant industry because obviously there are some restaurant companies that did not want to make the change," said Scott Rodrick, the owner of a McDonald's in San Francisco.

McDonald's in San Francisco has posted calories up there next to the prices, even though the law is in limbo.

"The changes that we do in our restaurants are driven by what our guests want. They've wanted to know what's in the hamburger, what's in the milkshake," said Rodrick.

But at Carl's Jr., the company has refused to post calories until ordered to do so by the feds.

"Caloric menu labeling has no impact on consumers' eating habits. In other words, this was a politically correct that is ineffective," said Carl's Jr. CEO Andy Puzder at a Congressional hearing.

Puzder testified before Congress against forced menu disclosures. He was not available for an interview. However, his spokesperson Beth Mansfield said customers don't go to Carl's Jr. to lose weight. She said, "We like to think our target market is young, hungry guys -- 18 to 34-year-old men. We're not marketing any diet burgers. They're delicious, big very craveable burgers that people want to come in and treat themselves to."

She said Carl's Jr. has a poster in every restaurant listing nutrition information, and for now wants to avoid the expense of changing all its menus until it has to.

So what about you? Do you want to know how many calories are in that fried calamari or double cheeseburger?

"I think it's important because we do have a health problem in America," said May McCue from San Francisco.

"I think ignorance is bliss. If you just don't know how many calories you're taking in you won't beat yourself up," said Nancy from San Mateo.

"I think it makes it a little bit hard to justify it to yourself when you're like, 'Oh, I'm about to consume like 1,000 calories in one sandwich,'" said Flora Vassileve from Oakland.

"I don't think it's the federal government's responsibility for my calorie intake," said Peter Bechdel from Iowa.

Some say seeing calories did change ordering habits. Some were surprised how many calories were in their mocha frappe from McDonald's or their fried calamari.

"I remember thinking wow chips and guac has that many calories?" said Vassileve.

Back at Il Fornaio, orders were flowing in spite of the calorie alert. Pizzas crowded the ovens, no one skimped on bread, and pasta seemed quite popular.

"They're going to go back and exercise probably a little more when they eat the lasagna," said Mauro Mazzon, a chef from Il Fornaio.

The menu labeling law is still in limbo. However, for now, chain restaurants in California have agreed on their own to provide customers with a brochure that lists all nutrition information of their menu items. Restaurants with at least 20 locations should provide you that brochure upon request.

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