Californians should cheer the new federal rules requiring calorie counts on menus, and not just because more than 60 percent of us are overweight.
The regulations posted last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally will make good on a state mandate that California passed five years ago, but that no one has been enforcing.
Given that the federal requirements actually were inspired by that pioneering state law, we welcome the action. Still, consumers here shouldn’t have had to wait.
The FDA rules come out of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. They are smart, sweeping and long overdue.
Beginning next fall, any food vendor with 20 or more outlets – fast-food chains, movie theaters, supermarkets and pizza parlors – will have to post calorie information on menus. They can’t just do it in fine print, either. The postings must be the same size as the name or price of the item. Rules apply to alcohol as well as food.
The information will be a boon to health-conscious consumers. Huge restaurant portions and fast food loaded with fat, salt, sugar and carbohydrates have been obstacles in the fight to reduce obesity and Type 2 diabetes; Americans consume about a third of their calories outside the home.
The calorie counts should not only help diners make more informed decisions, but also encourage less caloric menus. Though research has been mixed, at least one broad study has shown that consumers do make healthier choices when they see how many calories are in their food.
The unfortunate irony is that the new rules could have been old hat by now in California, which mandated calorie counts on chain restaurant menus in 2009.
In the aftermath of that state law, some chain restaurants here did, and still do, include calories on their menus. But after the Affordable Care Act passed with menu provisions that were tougher, in some cases, than California’s, the state law’s author, then-Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, wrote a new law to reconcile the state mandate with pending federal regulations.
The fix effectively stalled the original law while federal rules were written – a process that unfortunately dragged on for more than three years while the FDA battled fierce opposition from pizza chains and movie theaters. Meanwhile, calorie counts disappeared from many California menus, or simply failed to materialize.
It’s frustrating to imagine how much could have been learned had California been a true laboratory for menu labeling. But food vendors here should have no excuses now. If this state isn’t among the first to roll out the new rules, consumers will deserve an explanation. Californians have waited long enough for our information to be served.