San Francisco Chain Restaurants to Post Nutritional Information on Menus

April 29, 2008

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has now enacted a law requiring chain restaurants to post nutritional information on their menus. For purposes of the new legislation, a chain is defined as a restaurant with 20 or more California locations. The law provides that nutrition information, including caloric, fat, carbohydrate and sodium content, must be posted on menus, or for restaurants that do not have menus, on prominently displayed posters. Restaurants with menu boards are required to list the calories per item on the board. Other nutrition information can be listed on the posters.

In King County, Washington, similar legislation was also recently enacted. Starting near the end of this year, restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide will be required to post data on overhead menus, and a booklet at tables, or in some other location, so customers can read the information before ordering. Restaurants need not list nutrient content for items that have been on menus for 90 days or less. In July 2007, King County passed an earlier version of its menu-labeling regulations. This proposal would have required restaurants there to post nutrition information next to each menu item. The Washington Restaurant Association lobbied the state legislature to overturn the rules, and the new legislation represents a compromise. Individual restaurants are not bound by the agreement, however, and can still challenge the regulations in court.

Empiric data are conflicting on the value, if any, of such legislation. Some have questioned whether patrons of fast food restaurants are likely to pay attention to labels. One study reported that only 37% of participants could correctly calculate the carbohydrates provided in a 20-ounce serving of soda. Many studies seem to suggest that people who read nutrition labels already eschew fattening products anyway. So, while a number of cities have enacted legislation similar to San Francisco’s, they may or may not realize some tangible benefit from doing so.