Now Look who’s Involved

It started out with labeling calories for chain restaurants in New York City and grew to include sodium, carbohydrates, saturated fats, and trans fats in counties and states all over the country. Now who’s up to the plate? The independents; and you would never guess who the allies are in this battle.It wasn’t long ago that long time menu labeling rivals the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and the Center for Science in the Public interest (CSPI) joined forces to support the LEAN act. The act was a good compromise for both because it only affected (perhaps will affect) restaurant chains with 20 or more locations throughout the country and would (will?) affect about 25% (roughly 1 million) of all US restaurants. But some say that 25% is just not enough.Recently, Yum brands (yeah, Yum Brands, as in KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut…big chains) introduced a bill that would fill the “gaps” that they claim the LEAN act leaves by requiring smaller restaurants to also post nutrition information. The proposed regulations would impact restaurants with 3 or more units, and/or restaurants that do more than $1 million in annual sales. Now, the CSPI, who have previously been labeled the “food police” are lobbying for the legislation with more lenient regulations while a major restaurant group is lobbying for more stringent and wide spread government intervention. I never thought I’d see the day.I’ll admit that while I sympathize with restaurants who have had to step out of their areas of expertise to cater to these nutrition labeling laws, I do appreciate that they apply to larger chains only. For the most part the currently affected restaurants are those who already have nutrition information, or are those who have the means by which to generate it.I have a few concerns with requiring independents to post nutrition information:1.) Database analysis (the more affordable option in nutrition analysis) requires recipe specs, and many independent restaurants don’t have standardized recipes.2.) Because of lack of standardization among recipes many independents change the composition of their offerings from plate to plate thus further skewing the accuracy of the any analyses.3.) Many independent restaurant menus change from day to day to cater to what’s in season and what people are requesting. Daily nutrition analysis is a tall order.Most of you FohBohers out there know much more about the interworkings of both chain and independent restaurants than I do (my experience as a waitress during college only extends so far).In a previous post of mine when I posed the question “does nutrition information have a place on the menu?”. I meant it in regards to larger chains, and many of the responses to the post lean in favor of menu labeling laws. I’m curious to know if the feeling is the same if independents are involved.
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  • Very interesting things going on with the proposed legislation right now, we're certainly on the edge of our seats here. I agree the allies are very surprising and the concerns over independents being able to comply with accurate information are very real.
  • Thanks Mark...
    As a consumer I'm certainly more aware of nutrition but I find that the products recommended by the health experts and politically active "food police" tend to be the most expensive products, currently. I say this coming from a state that was recently rated #3 in the nation for being "food insecure" (hungry).
    That being said, with the economy beating the tar out of the restaurant industry, adding the cost burden of mandatory menu labeling is just another expense that beats us down.
  • Paul,
    I appreciate the perceived depth of your concern, and agree that requiring servers, managers, and chefs to also be nutritionists and dieticians would go too far, be ineffective to the restaurant's main goal, and add costly elements to the dynamic. The case study I am familiar with and the proposed legislation simply requires the top 25 restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post nutritional information on the menu. So if you are eyeballing that burrito and realize it has 1200 calories, you might choose a taco instead.

    As far as grocery shelves, which I am very familiar with, legislation has changed the way consumers eat and more importantly how manufacturers produce product. For example, the Trans Fat labeling legislation that was passed in 2006 required food manufacturers to add how much trans fat was in their products to the nutritional label. Thousands of products on grocery shelves contained these harmful fats - mainly used because they were cheap substitutes and helped extend shelf life. Once manufacturers were required to post this negative information, the industry scrambled to find alternative ways to produce products without trans fats. Even the poster child for trans fats, Oreos, now produces its products with zero grams of trans fat. (for more on trans fats, see my blog post on "Devil's in the Details - You've Got To Outsmart the Label" ).

    I think the menu labeling intitiative will also have a two-pronged effect. I think consumers will perhaps make better choices with more information. And I think the restaurant industry will perhaps revamp recipes so the nutritional exposure does not blatantly scream "heart attack if you eat me." Cost increases on products and operations may go up... once, in the very beginning. Relatively speaking, costs to consumers (and taxpayers) will hopefully go down as more people become aware that what they eat directly affects their health and the costs to maintain it.
  • Hi Mark...

    Much of the earlier nutrition labeling legislation passed put the information on products found on grocery shelves where most of the food shopping occurs. I don't think it worked as we still have an obesity problem in the USA. The latest effort towards menu labeling implies that the obesity issue is the "fault" of restaurants.

    But if you walk down the aisles of your local grocery stores the truth of the matter is that the "chips & dip" aisle is chock full of "junk-food" for its entire length. And the "chips & dip" stock is rotated faster than the "healthy food" aisle.

    As a restaurant industry member who engages our customers face-to-face daily, I can just envision being grilled about nutritional information by a customer.

    It's one thing for being expected to know ingredients of menu selection but totally another being able to understand the nutritional value of the products.

    How many operators and managerswould like a nutritional crusader working their stations "informing" each table of their nutritional faux paxs throught our their shift.

    While a healthy eating is important to overall health, legislated and mandatory nutritional labeling has not made the impact the supporters had oped. What it did do ws inflate the cost of product and operating costs which just drive up the price.

  • It comes as no surpise that Yum (or any other major restaurant chain affected by the Menu Labeling) would try to wrangle some control over the fate of their industry. Yum makes a case that the current proposed legislation would leave almost 75% of restaurants free from the menu labeling requirements . They claim that if this is what consumers want, the legislation should be more encompassing.

    I view this as a strategy similar to Big Tobacco in the cigarette cases. Unhappy with how the proposed legislation effects them (or more importantly does not effect all of their competitors), this chain wants to look like it is compromising with the public and at the same time send the legislation off its track. It's a good PR strategy, but in my opinion does not serve the heart of the issue.

    Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure have become epidemic in the US. Consumers do not know what is in the food they are eating, and legislation to get the top 25% of restaurants, of which most are fast food (junk food) establishments to post their nutriotional information will take a big step towards educating the masses. More interesting to me than the percentage of restaurants effected would be the percentage of consumers effected - if the 80/20 rule applies, then probably 80% of consumers dine at the top 20% of the restaurants. The current proposed legislation as it stands is a good first step, and an important stage in opening the eyes of the consumer. And as you point out, Alyson, I think the smaller chains and independents are much less likely to have a spec or consistent recipe, and I don't think anyone wants to legislate the creativity out of the culinary business.

    At the same time, personal responsibility needs to come into play. Legislating the posting of nutritional information seems like a good prod towards healthier lifestyles, but people often can't or won't prioritize a healthier diet. I completely agree with critics emphasizing the consequences of personal choice - however I think the choices are easier to make with more information. There's a good case study on the history of the menu labeling legislation, and in it a quiz is mentioned that indicates some astounding facts I think even the most carefree consumer would notice. For example, a large chocolate shake at McDonald's has more calories than two Big Macs. You can view this study at

    Great post, Alyson!!
  • Hello...
    I dare the "food police" to show up at the Wisconsin State Fair and throw themselves between the vendors and the fair attendees!!! :-)

    'Stick' around for the food at the Wisconsin State Fair
    By TOM ALESIA - - AUG 7, 2009 - 10:52 PM -

    Fair food highlights (40 items “on a stick”):

    Deep fried chocolate-covered bacon on a stick. Machine Shed hopes to sell 200,000 pairs — or 400,000 ($3)

    Deep fried Oreo cookies on a stick

    Deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (3)

    Deep fried macaroni and cheese on a stick (1,000 sold @ $5 in 3-days last year!) ($5)

    Deep fried “giant corn dog,” (resembles a baseball bat in size)

    Deep fried cheesecake on a stick. (5$)

    Deep fried Snickers on a stick] ($4)

    Deep fried kettle corn on a stick ($4)

  • Hi Alyson...

    As you exited being a waitress I continued as a waiter... for almost 30-years now.

    I can hardly wait for legislation that requires the waiters to announce to diners that they are entering the "danger-zone" on nutrition.

    "Madam... Sir... the law requires that I infom you that if you eat what you ordered your butt will get bigger. Now... you said you wanted a diet soda with that full rack of ribs, coleslaw, mashed potatos & gravy, right?

    As is with most things, moderation is the key. But the American culture is not about moderation. It is about more.

    As a consumer it is about getting the most out of your dollar spent. As a business it's getting the most profit for the least amount spent.

    For businesses it is more profitable to open a fast food operation instead of $100-plate restaurant or an organic grocery store next to a high school, especially in poor and/or urban areas.

    And as itis with most "rules"... "It's all fine and good as long as they don't apply to me!"

    Thanks for allowing a perspective from the houlry restaurant employees who have to deal with the "rules" face to face with the customers.

  • Great question Alyson,

    I have spent a lot of my career on national chain and franchise environments. I also spent my last 10 years of direct operations work in the "emerging brand" environments. So, I think I have a basis to understand both sides of this debate.

    It is clear that the move on the part of the big chains to push uncharacteristically toward MORE government intervention is at best very self serving and is clearly a direct economic attack on the "independent operator" competition. It is easy for a national chain to hire a company nutrition expert to do nutritional analysis on any and everything they do. They live in the world of standardization and systems in operations. But, for the small independent you created a near impossible mandate while blowing a hole in the bottom of their financial boat, while handcuffing them in a way that destroys the very thing that makes the independent operation so cool--constant/daily creativity. Lets be honest every independent is not going to be able to have a full time nutrition expert at their beck-and-call.

    That said, like the anti public smoking movement and the dram shop laws as examples, this issue of public health, concerns over the obesity rate, nutritional disclosure, healthy options on menus, "restaurants responsible for making people fat", is not going away. With planning and forethought there are measures the independent can and should do to adapt and actually use this issue to their advantage, but it will require deliberate thoughtful measures to be taken and a clear understanding that just ignoring the issue/debate will not make it go away.

    We have a choice, we can ignore it and hope it will go away (which it wont) while handing the big chain operators yet another tool to brush aside the creative independent operator or run out embrace the issue and manage it so that it does not manage us.

    Like the late Mike Jenkins used to say "if your going to get run out of town, jump out in front and make a parade out of it"

    Great post Alyson!! Great question! Timely debate!
  • Thanks for posting this Allyson,

    While it is typically despicable corporate marketshare warfare "food fight" fashion, I suppose we would be massively deluded to expect anything less of "Yum" &/or other factory-farm to foodlike-substance-manufacturing-facility to your local supersize fill-em-up station bizness.

    I imagine that businesses presently putting out "portion control" .. "menu costing" .. and similar type of database software will seize on the opportunity to roll out a product to fill any need which arises due to any new menu disclosure requirements, and I predict that such new requirements will actually backfire on the junk-food vendors.

    It would be most interesting if the requirements included (for instance) whether or not the corn included in a product was GMO corn (including the cornstarch, the corn syrup, etc)

    In European Union there is tremendous resistance against agricultural GMO products from being grown .. I would expect this to also follow into offering derivative products for sale .. as evidence builds to show what a heinously stupid idea it is to allow widespread testing on humans of "foodlike substances" which have been genetically mangled by the ever malignant Monsanto crowd

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  • I first noticed the calorie labeling a few years ago in a TGI fridays and Ruby Tuesday.
    I think Applebee's has it now,too.

    My point is what the labeling was was calories for a diet conscious menu.
    It wasn't on everything (like the Dbl cheeseburger and Fries platter or whatever).
    i was at a place where a customer asked about the calories and the server went to 'look it up".

    I figure they were higher than what was on the diet conscious menu.

    I wonder about the cost , particularly if it becomes law. The independents will have to invest marketing and advertising dollars to get the word out.

    Good post, Allyson. This should get some interesting dialogue going.
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