June 2, 2006 – The FDA is leaning on restaurants to give customers more information on the fat and calorie content of their foods in an effort to help combat obesityobesity.
Agency officials said Friday they expected restaurants and other prepared food providers to voluntarily make nutritionnutrition information easily available to patrons. Though they said they wouldn’t seek the legal authority to order improved labeling in restaurants, officials left open the possibility of seeking it in the future if businesses were to refuse.
Acting FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, told reporters that Americans now consume an average of one-third of their calories in restaurants, workplace cafeterias, and other establishments outside the home. But he cited a “general lack of easily accessible nutritional information on these foods.”
Some restaurants, including many fast-food chains, already list nutrition content, often on web sites or pamphlets. But consumer advocates have long called for rules placing the information front and center while consumers make their food choices.
Von Eschenbach said a restaurant menu should “define its content in terms of calories, fat, and overall nutrition” for consumers.
The statements Friday came on the heels of a report commissioned by the FDA urging restaurants to boost promotion of healthier foods while giving consumers more information about the food's content.
Officials maintain that food labeling is but one part of societal changes they say are needed to tackle the rising obesity problem in the U.S. Nearly 64% of American adults are now classified as overweight or obese, putting many of them at risk for chronic illnesses such as heart diseaseheart disease and diabetesdiabetes.
Restaurant Industry Opposes Force
The FDA does not have the legal authority to order nutrition labeling on restaurant menus like the ones on packaged food in grocery stores, and the report did not explicitly call for the labels. But von Eschenbach said the report, issued by an independent group known as the Keystone Forum, would mark the beginning of a national dialogue on making healthier food more palatable and identifiable for consumers.
“We believe we are exercising authority. It may not be legal authority, but moral authority, if you will,” he said.
Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the report showed that “you can’t deal with obesity and not deal with eating out.”
“People want this information. They need to have calories listed on menus so they know what they’re getting themselves into when they order,” said Wootan, who was one of several activists, researchers, and industry representatives who participated in formulating the Keystone report.
Restaurants strongly oppose any new rules forcing them to list nutritional information. The National Restaurant Association, an industry group, participated in the Keystone report but refused to endorse its recommendations.
“Many of the recommendations made are actions or initiatives already taking place in our restaurants,” Steven C. Anderson, the group’s CEO, said in a statement.
“Efforts to restrict or place mandates on our industry are not solutions,” he said.
Von Eschenbach suggested that leaning on restaurants for voluntary changes would be more productive than seeking legal mandates. But he said more restaurants should willingly place fat and calorie information where customers can easily see it.
“I’d like to see it a lot more because there are only a few” who do it now, he said.