It wasn't that long ago that when Americans went to the grocery store to pick up, say, a box of Wheat Thins, we had no idea what was in them. That box could have been filled with cat poop covered in caramel and none of us would have any idea.
In 1990, that all changed. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act required that all packaged food bear nutrition labeling. Can you imagine shopping without it now? I know that I can't. I can hardly buy a thing in a box or wrapper that I haven't checked the calorie or fat content of first. Studies from the FDA prove that this is the case for most of us. Nutrition labeling was never about controlling what American's consumed, but about our right to know what we were putting in our bodies.
Here we are, almost 20 years later, and State Representative Tina Kotek would like to see similar rules apply to chain restaurants in Oregon. Tina's menu labeling bill says that all restaurants with 10 or more locations nationwide would have to list calories on their menus. Other nutritional information would be made available, upon request, before purchase. Before is the key word. How can you make a reasonable decision about what you eat if you know the calories after you've hosed down a Applebee's sampler? Menu labeling only works when consumers can see the information before they've made a decision.
Tina's having a hard time getting traction on this one. Why? The Oregon Restaurant Association is putting up a serious fight and as they've made clear, this is their only fight this session. Even though 70% of Oregonians support having nutritional information on menu items, some of our elected leaders are having a hard time supporting this. Oneof the arguments is that with bad economic times, the bill adds strain to smalll business owners. Well wouldn't you know, fast food is one of the few industries that are showing strong growth. Subway - a chain that already uses menu labeling - led the limited-service sandwich category in sales, holding on to 43% of the market.
Another argument is the burden to restaurants. This bill strikes the right balance between the consumer’s right to know and the business needs of restaurants. Most chain restaurants centralize menu development, nutrition analysis, and menu printing, so company headquarters would incur the costs, not the franchises. In terms of nutrition analysis, most of the restaurants that would be affected
by this legislation already provide it to customers in pamphlets or on their websites so they wouldn’t incur any new costs for analyzing their products. And for the minority of restaurants that haven’t done this yet, there’s nutrition analysis software they can buy for a one-time fee of $500.
This bill isn't a miracle cure. We won't suddenly all be skinny because we know that there are 250 calories in a grande vanilla latte. I most certainly won't stop eating Burgerville because I know what's in the halibut sandwich (Ok, I might have one less a year). But, as much as we know what's in the shirts on our backs, the gas mileage of our cars and the efficency of our washers, we should know what we put in our mouths when we go out to eat. We have the right to know and to make our own best choices based on clear information.
If you agree, let your elected representative know that you support knowing what's in your food. They represent you, after all, not the Oregon Restaurant Association.