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U.S. cities, states consider restaurant menu-labeling rules

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Jan. 1, 2011, will mark a turning point in the way restaurant patrons view their menus in California. With state-mandated laws requiring that all California restaurants with 20 or more locations post calorie content information directly on menus or menu boards, restaurateurs in Oklahoma are left asking the question, "Are we next?"

MENU-LABELING LEGISLATION
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In a 2008 survey of fattest cities in America by Men's Fitness magazine, Oklahoma City ranked eighth " packing on seven spots from the 2007 survey. It is estimated that more than 63 percent of the adult population of Oklahoma City is overweight or obese, and nationally, obesity is associated with more than 112,000 deaths annually. Stopping obesity should end where it begins " at the dining room table.

Lawmakers hoping to enforce stronger corporate accountability for restaurants serving up dishes high in trans fats have successfully passed menu-labeling legislation in both New York (July 2008) and California (September 2008). However, with more than 20 other cities and states weighing similar legislation, is Oklahoma next in line to jump on the bandwagon?

For Jim Hopper, CEO and president of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, addressing the growing problem with obesity in the state isn't the responsibility of just the restaurant owners. Everyone who participates is in the loop, including the consumers themselves.

"The issue of obesity has to be addressed on a variety of fronts, including personal responsibility by consumers for their food choices," Hopper said.

"The Oklahoma Restaurant Association is opposed to mandatory menu labeling that is done on a patchwork basis by individual counties or cities. This is an issue that should be addressed by Congress," he said. "In fact, there is legislation that has been introduced in Washington to create a federal standard for menu labeling."

MENU-LABELING LEGISLATION
With the introduction of menu-labeling legislation, some restaurateurs are faced with the dilemma of obeying the law or suffering penalties and fines. But, according to Sara Beth Potts, general manager of Bellini's Ristorante & Grill, this isn't the only dilemma these laws would create.

"From what I've read and researched, I'm unsure if I would support a mandatory menu-labeling bill for sit-down restaurants," Potts said. "There are several questions I have regarding these measures. For example, what would be the overall costs? Based on what I've read, it seems that restaurants would have to send their recipes to a nutritional lab for exact measurements and caloric values. It also seems to take the spontaneity out of creating new dishes.

"At Bellini's, we take pride in using fresh ingredients and produce to create lunch and dinner specials, and most are created that day. Would we be required to list the fat content, caloric value and portion size of every single special we create? How would a restaurant be able to do this every day?"

For the average restaurant owner, the costs associated with the nutritional analysis that could possibly be required by menu-labeling legislation could prove to be extremely high. Strasburger & Siegel Inc., a food-testing laboratory established in 1926 and based in Hanover, Md., charges $615 per menu item for food nutritional analysis. Complying with labeling laws could cost a restaurant owner an amount easily into six figures each year.

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Another red flag for Hopper is the added vulnerability that restaurateurs would assume, making them easy prey for lawsuits. This, too, Hopper said, is a subject that lawmakers must keep in mind when drafting menu-labeling legislation.

"The legislation should also include protection from lawsuits for restaurants that comply with the regulations but may fix a menu item differently because of a patron's specific request," he said.

Supporters of menu-labeling legislation, such as state Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, say that such measures aren't about penalizing restaurant owners but rather protecting restaurant patrons by giving them the information needed to make the healthiest choices possible.

"I believe that we are responsible for the dissemination of health information that addresses obesity in our state," Pittman said. "We are fortunate to have a mayor who has brought solutions to the forefront and has engaged citizens to become informed and active. We now have an even greater responsibility, as our state faces diabetes and heart-related diseases in African Americans and Native Americans. We must identify the at-risk factors and educate on solutions."

In February 2006, Senate Bill 1309, known as the "Oklahoma Nutrition Information Act," was introduced. The bill would have required chain restaurants with five or more locations to print nutrition information (protein, calories, fat, sodium and carbohydrates) for standard menu items for customers. "Fran L. Thomas

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