Nutritional Information on Menus: Two Different Legislative Approaches

June 11, 2008

On January 1, King County, Washington will become the first in the United States to require large chain restaurants to provide information about calories, saturated fat, carbohydrate and sodium content in the dishes they offer. These rules will affect some 1,700 restaurants in King County that have more than 1,500 locations nationwide. The rules require restaurants to use a “reasonable basis” to support the nutrition information they provide to consumers. If a restaurant inspector determines that the nutritional information provided is lacking or if the inspector receives a complaint about its accuracy, the restaurant may be asked to provide documentation demonstrating how it arrived at the data presented. Non-compliant restaurants will lose points on their inspection scores, and closure is a possible sanction.

As subscribers are aware, about a dozen cities and counties outside Florida have enacted menu-labeling legislation in the past couple of years. Restaurant associations traditionally oppose legislative requirements to post such information because of the burdens they impose on restaurant operators. Legislation recently passed in Florida will prevent local governments from requiring restaurants to post nutritional information on menus as King County recently did. Instead, such postings would be required at the state level. Proponents argue that state legislation will avoid inconsistency from locality to locality. Although the efficacy of such legislation is debatable and although in some circumstances pre-emption issues might be raised, there is some merit in diminishing the burdens such laws impose upon restaurants.