The Conversation

A weekly discussion of a topic important to Californians

September 6, 2008
Food fight
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This week's Conversation topic: Mandatory nutrition labeling. Should the state require restaurants to disclose the number of calories in every item on the menu?

Do you know how many calories are in what you eat? Answer these four questions to test your knowledge. Of 523 Californians surveyed, none got them all right, and nearly 70 percent missed all four. Can you do better?

Read my take here on SB 1420, a bill that the Legislature has passed and sent to the governor's desk. It would require restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie information in menus or on menu boards. The bill seems certain to raise awareness about calories. But will it change behavior?

Read our guest commentators:

Harold Goldstein, director of the Public Health Advocacy Center and a major backer of SB 1420:


"Calorie sticker shock." That's what people are experiencing in New York City since a new ordinance went into effect there in July requiring chain restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. For the first time people can easily see, for example, that a cheeseburger and large fries at McDonald's has fewer calories than a blueberry muffin and a Venti Mocha Frappucino at Starbucks.

Californians will see that same simple, straightforward information at fast food and other chain restaurants if Gov. Schwarzenegger signs SB 1420. Right next to the price on the menu board, customers will be able to compare the calorie content of their food and beverage choices.

In recent years a number of fast- food chains have begun to promote healthier items. Requiring calorie information on menu boards will support those marketing efforts and allow consumers to make informed choices. Chains that sell good-tasting, lower-calorie foods will thrive; chains that don't will watch their sales decline. That's how the free market is supposed to work.

Read the rest here.

John Graham, director of health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute. He opposes nutrition labeling:

The latest deployment in the war on obesity is upon us. SB 1420, sponsored by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, will require California fast-food restaurants to post the amount of calories in every item on their menu boards. SB 1420's backers believe that when we're forced to see the numbers, we'll do the math and change our eating habits.

Two scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, put on their rose-colored glasses and concluded that SB 1420 could cause California to avoid 50 million pounds of extra weight a year. That best-case scenario includes people who eat fast food seven times a week losing 5.4 pounds a year. Earth to Berkeley: Someone who eats at Burger King seven times a week is not going to pay attention to these numbers.

SB 1420 is likely more about junk lawsuits than junk food. The trial lawyers have been busy developing a business strategy to profit from fast food since an infamous New York case five years ago, where a couple of obese girls sued McDonald's.

Read the rest here.

Last year Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill. But he is expected to sign SB 1420 because the restaurant industry has joined the coalition backing the proposal. Read his veto of last year's bill here.

Should the government require restaurant to post calorie information for every menu item?


The American Heart Assn. was listed as a supporter SB 1420 in the final Senate staff analysis before the vote, but a rep for the association tells me that the group now opposes the bill as it sits on the governor's desk. Here is why: 

"While we are indeed champions of menu labeling, I write to inform you that we recently pulled our support and now oppose the bill.

As one of the original co-sponsors of SB 1420 it was difficult for us to remove our support, but amendments taken during the final week of the session prompted us to make this decision.  Specifically, the preemption language mentioned in your article "This prevents local governments from implementing their own local provisions," caused us to change our position.

We have learned from our long history with tobacco legislation that local preemption is bad policy and cannot be permitted to take root in state law.  To have a flawed bill used as a model to be replicated over and over with preemption language was something the American Heart Association decided that it could not condone. It was our vision all along that SB 1420 would be a floor, and not a ceiling, that would preclude local governments from implementing potentially stronger menu labeling laws in the future.


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About The Conversation

Welcome to The Conversation, where our goal is to provoke and sustain spirited and civil debate on issues central to life in California. I'll offer a topic and starting point for a discussion each week, but we need you to carry it forward from there. Please dive in and join the conversation.
-- Daniel Weintraub

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