May 13, 2009

Massachusetts To Have Stricter Fast Food Menu Rules

On Wednesday, Massachusetts is expected to publicize a list of rules for fast-food chains, requiring them to list how many calories are in the food they sell.

The state's Public Health Council is expected to vote Wednesday on regulations that will make the chains list their calorie counts of their food on their menus or menu boards.

The regulations are expected to be more strict than California's, which became the first U.S. state with menu labeling rules for fast-food restaurant chains in September.

The changes are taking place at a time of rising obesity in the U.S., and regulations are intended to let people be better-informed about the food that they eat.

According to a 2008 state report, which also showed adult obesity has more than doubled in 20 years, over half of adults in Massachusetts are obese. 

According to U.S. government figures, around 33 percent of Americans are overweight, with more than 34 percent being obese.

Last year, a restaurant calorie information rule was established in New York City, and over a dozen states are now considering similar provisions.

Judy Grant of the healthy food advocacy group ValueTheMeal.org, said that the Massachusetts regulations will cover items at restaurant drive-through windows, where close to 65 percent of fast food is purchased.

She also said that Massachusetts will also not override regulations in municipalities that impose stricter labeling rules at fast-food places.  For example, in California, menu labeling rules that are passed in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties were nullified by the state law.

Massachusetts Department of Public Health spokesman Tom Lyons said that the rising obesity rate is "obviously important when you have a state that has created such success around healthcare reform."

Massachusetts passed a law in 2006 that requires almost everyone to have health insurance or face tax penalties.  For people that earn less than $9,800 a year, coverage is free.

There have been some restaurant companies that objected to having additional government regulations.  For example, in New York City some have fought the menu labeling rules with lawsuits.

Fast food chains support proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress known as the "Lean Act," which requires restaurants and grocery stores that serve food to post calories on menus, menu boards or other similar ways.

Critics of that legislation say that there is need for consumers to know the nutritional value of meals due to more people dining out.

"There was some sense that we should model it on the very large restaurant markets of California and New York City," Lyons said. "Many of the companies we will cover as part of the regulation will have already had to comply in those markets."


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