Menu Labeling: Full Disclosure 2010-03-01
Posted Date March 2010
By: Restaurants & Institutions
In November, the New Jersey Restaurant Association (NJRA) issued a statement strongly opposing a menu-labeling bill under consideration in the state Senate. Urging elected officials to vote against the measure, which would require restaurant chains with 20 or more units nationwide to post calorie counts on in-store and drive-thru menus, the association argued, “Menus are intended to market the food, ambiance and characteristics of eating-and-drinking establishments and should not be used as tools for government to disseminate public health messages.”
Furthermore, the NJRA asserted, New Jersey “has a lot of work to do” to become more business-friendly and affordable for consumers. It concluded, “This is not the time for [New Jersey] to place another burdensome mandate on eating and drinking establishments in the state.”
The effort failed. In January, New Jersey became the fifth state—following California, Massachusetts, Maine and Oregon—to pass statewide menu-labeling legislation. A similar bill cleared Delaware’s state Senate two weeks later. Moreover, the specter of federal calorie-posting requirements looms large: Menu-labeling provisions are included in federal healthcare bills that as of press time were stalled in Congress, and the National Restaurant Association has thrown its support behind federal menu-labeling legislation, stating that a uniform national standard represents the only equitable approach to menu labeling.
One upshot for operators: Calorie-posting legislation already in effect in select cities and states, as well as that being considered by Congress, prevents consumers from suing compliant operators if, for example, an individual restaurant fails to prepare an item according to the standardized recipe, resulting in a calorie count for the item that is higher or lower than what’s posted. Fines for noncompliance range generally from $50 to $250 for a first offense; repeat offenses could cost an operator as much as $500 in New Jersey or $1,000 in Oregon.
With calorie-posting requirements becoming a reality for a growing number of foodservice businesses—not to mention drawing wider attention among the public—more operators are striving to find ways to make menu labeling work for them. Making nutrition data available to guests in all stores and online before labeling laws take effect is an obvious first step: Doing so not only helps suggest that an operator has nothing to hide from customers but also lets operators frame the discussion about the healthfulness of their menu items.
For Conshohocken, Pa.-based Saladworks, the rising tide of calorie-posting laws served as part of the impetus for developing the True Nutrition campaign, announced in January. A new line of signature salads, all containing fewer than 500 calories, will debut in April; store signage will list the salads’ calorie counts and describe the health benefits associated with consumption of ingredients such as beets, artichokes, white beans and walnuts.
“[The menu-labeling issue] has certainly made us take a closer look at our direction in terms of research and development,” says Kris Smith, vice president of brand services. “When developing the recipes ... we absolutely take a closer look at ingredients’ nutrition profile.”
A clear emphasis on the good-for-you qualities of menu items’ ingredients—key to Saladworks’ True Nutrition campaign—can give meaning and perspective to the nutrition data that consumers increasingly are seeing in stores. Lanette Kovachi, corporate dietitian for Milford, Conn.-based Subway, sees calorie-posting laws as presenting an opportunity to talk about calorie quality, not just quantity.
“A lot of people still don’t understand what is the right calorie level for them and why some calories might be better,” she says. “They don’t understand that getting 300 calories from a beverage might not be as good as 300 calories from a sandwich.”
Notes Erin Salvatore, Saladworks spokesperson: “People say, 'I maybe would not want to put avocado on my salad because it’s high in fat. But [we’re saying] yes, while the numbers may seem a little high for a salad, it’s high for these reasons.” On Saladworks’ menu, avocado is described as “packed with over 20 different nutrients, aids in the lowering of blood cholesterol levels.”
The new, pro-health language is especially important to Saladworks because the chain—already affected by menu-labeling laws that took effect in Philadelphia on Jan. 1—will by April post calorie counts on menu boards in all of its 100-plus locations. “A lot of [this effort] does have to do with the menu-labeling laws,” Salvatore says. “We know these laws are coming, but now we’re making even more changes to educate our customers.”
But on any given day, many consumers do look to make more-healthful dining-out choices—8% of consumers in R&I’s 2010 New American Diner Study say they would always order an item labeled “healthy”; 86% say they sometimes do—and letting them know that menu items that meet their dietary needs are available can go a long way in building customer trust.
“We think it’s a good thing to be transparent, to give [consumers] the information” says Subway’s Kovachi. “We know that it’s important and that eventually it will sink in and more people will start to make healthier choices.”
Establishing a Reputation
Boston-based Au Bon Pain has long taken a proactive approach to nutrition disclosure. Since 2003, all of the bakery-cafe chain’s company-owned stores (and many of its franchised units) have let diners look up nutrition data for its 200-plus foods and beverages—80 or so of which are on offer at any given time—at computerized kiosks in stores. In addition, in 2008, the chain launched the Portions menu of small salads and snacks that contain no more than 200 calories.
Au Bon Pain still is required to post calorie counts on menu boards themselves wherever menu-labeling laws are in effect, but Executive Chef Thomas John says the chain’s earlier nutrition-focused initiatives have helped it cultivate a reputation as a concept that respects guests’ health concerns.
“One of our philosophies has been to always be up front about nutrition information,” says John. “We’ve actually helped the customer figure out how to eat right, how to choose.”