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Calorie Counts Could Appear on Fast-Food Menus

Eating a Big Mac, a Whopper or a juicy Potbelly sandwich could come with a reminder for consumers in Illinois.

State Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago) introduced a bill last month that would force chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Potbelly to disclose on their menu boards the number of calories contained in each meal.

“I found my idea from last summer when I took a short trip to New York City. I saw that restaurants have to disclose information,” said Mell.

Mell, a first-term lawmaker and daughter of longtime Chicago Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), said she found the information useful because she was counting calories using an application on her iPhone.

“I am amazed how [many restaurants in Illinois] we have, and we don’t know what the ingredients are [in each entree]. Sure, there are nutritional fact sheets, but nobody will pay attention when ordering,” she said.

Mell said the new measure would not cost a lot of money because chains already calculate the calories, and they would only have to pay for reprinting the menus.

Jeff Cronin, communications director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national advocacy group for healthier eating, applauded the new bill.

“Labeling on menu boards really helps to control consumers’ weight and health,” Cronin said.

Cronin said his group has been working with New York City officials since that city’s legislation was enforced in 2008. Since that time, there has been a big impact on public perceptions.

According to an online survey reported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, after consumers learned the calorie count of menu items, 71 percent of the people said they wanted to order lower-calorie options. Also, 51 percent said they would no longer order certain items.

The survey was conducted in early 2009, nearly a year after the law had taken effect, among 755 consumers who live in the five New York City boroughs.

“A new law could be a powerful tool to provide information, but we don’t know if consumers would change their habits,” said Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Blatner said focusing on fast-food restaurants is a good start because two out of every three people in the county are overweight and fast-food restaurants offer food that is high in calories.

Some would like to extend the idea of posting calories counts to more restaurants.

Denise Wilson, a communications officer for Burger King, said the fast-food chain is fully compliant with current local regulations to post calories on restaurant menu boards.

However, Wilson said the company supports the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act (LEAN Act) introduced last year in the U.S. Congress because it would create a standard for the industry in all 50 states.

Besides Illinois, a dozen other states have introduced labeling laws, but only four have signed them into law. California will be the first one to enforce its law in January 2011. Maine, New Jersey and Oregon will follow suit a short time later.

“Currently, there is a growing patchwork of inconsistent state and local laws governing menu labeling. We will roll out consistent nutritional in-restaurant menu labeling once a federal standard is enacted,” said Wilson.

The National Restaurant Association also said the industry needs a national approach.

“Unfortunately, the current legislation is not the right approach for consumers to get the right information,” said spokeswoman Sue Hensley.

She said the association wants to develop a label that could be similar to the nutrition facts that can be found on food packages.

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