The California and New York state legislatures are moving toward requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on their menu items, joining a movement that until now has gained traction mostly in cities and counties. The California and New York state bills, if passed, would be the country's first statewide menu-labeling legislation and could have widespread national impact because of the states' roles as national trendsetters.
But menu-labeling laws face resistance from some political leaders. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, and Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed a bill May 12 that will ban counties from enacting the laws.
The menu laws typically require sit-down restaurants to list nutritional facts such as calories, fat content, carbohydrates and sodium for each menu item, while fast-food outlets with menu boards have to post calorie counts on the boards. The legislation usually targets restaurant chains with 10 or more national locations.
New York City began implementing a menu law in May. San Francisco and Seattle's King County will begin implementing menu laws later this year. Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, passed a law June 3 requiring that chain restaurants in unincorporated areas include nutritional information on menus. Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC are among cities considering following suit.
An official for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health-advocacy group that supports menu labeling, says that by the group's latest tally, 15 other state legislatures have introduced similar bills in the past two years, but none have been enacted. Advocates say that laws enacted by the two influential states should spur other states to move more quickly.
A California bill written by Democratic State Sen. Alex Padillia to mandate calorie disclosures was passed by the state's Senate in May and is expected to pass in the Assembly later this summer. If the Assembly passes the legislation, the bill will head to the governor's desk by August 31.
In October, Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill by Padilla because, the governor said, it placed a burden on some restaurants but not others. He also noted that the bill provided little flexibility as to how restaurants could display nutritional facts and that an increasing number of restaurants were providing such information online. A spokeswoman for Mr. Schwarzenegger declined to comment on the new bill.
The legislation also faces competition from a similar but more lenient nutrition-disclosure bill that is supported by the California Restaurant Association.
Mr. Padilla says his latest bill, which affects restaurants with 15 or more locations in the state, was designed to avoid burdening mom-and-pop eateries. He also says that displaying nutrition information online is too ineffective. "We're walking the fine line of [avoiding] telling people what they can or cannot eat or telling the restaurants what they can or cannot serve," he says. "But we're providing the information that most consumers said they would love to have in these decisions."
A similar bill is wending through the New York state Legislature. Its sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, says he is trying to push it through the Legislature before its June 23 recess. The bill would affect restaurants with 15 or more national locations and five or more state locations.
While Mr. Ortiz believes the legislation might pass before lawmakers go into recess, his office acknowledges that there is still work to be done. An official at the state's restaurant association said it doubts the bill will be passed in this legislative session. If it doesn't pass, it would have to be reintroduced in the next legislative session, which begins in January.
The menu measures are coming amid a general greater focus by cities, states, school districts and other public entities on the country's obesity problem. According to a May report by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, menu labeling could have "a sizable salutary impact on the obesity epidemic," based on "conservative assumptions" that the postings would result in 10% of chain-restaurant patrons' ordering reduced-calorie meals.
Supporters of menu labeling, which include the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, say it encourages healthier eating and reduces the risk of diabetes and other diseases.
Many in the restaurant industry voice problems with the labeling, including the cost to reconfigure menus and have food tested for nutritional values. Critics also say labeling isn't feasible in certain instances. Officials at Wendy's International Inc., of Dublin, Ohio, say it would be hard for them to post an accurate calorie count because some customers ask for condiments on their sandwiches and some don't. There also isn't solid evidence, industry officials say, that menu labeling reduces obesity.
Lara Dunbar, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Restaurant Association, says calorie information isn't a good measure for healthfulness. "Diet Pepsi has no calories," she says. "Low-fat milk has 130 calories. What's healthier?"
A judge ruled against the New York State Restaurant Association in a lawsuit against the New York City law in federal district court in April. An appeals hearing is set for Thursday.