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PDF: MEAL Act

Despite national momentum toward forcing chain restaurants to display calorie counts on their menu boards, health advocates and lawmakers say the mandates have a long way to go before getting widespread support in the Southeast.

"Tennessee is a Southern state and you tend to get a lot of the resistance on mandating anything to any kind of business," said John Bilderback, program manager for Step ONE, an obesity prevention program of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

As the U.S. Congress considers a newly introduced bill to require calorie counts on menu boards - the overhead listing of items at fast-food restaurants - a similar bill struggled to gain traction in the Tennessee General Assembly this session.

In May, a House subcommittee tabled a bill for this session that would have forced chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to display calorie counts and other nutritional information on their menu boards.

The bill, introduced by Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration, will be revisited over the summer and reintroduced next year, said the bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.

A calorie-count bill wouldn't make it very far in Georgia, said Rep. Mike Coan, R-Lawrenceville, who was lead sponsor of the bill passed last year in the state Legislature that prevents local entities from mandating nutritional displays in restaurants.

"At the state level we'll probably be one of the last to adopt anything like that," Rep. Coan said. "I'm very pro-business, and I knew if this ever got started in Georgia we would put on businesses an undue burden to try to meet these requirements."

SPREADING CALORIES

Disclosure of calorie counts is spreading. More than 20 states and localities are looking at mandates to require fast-food and other chain restaurants to display calories and other nutrition information on menu boards and menus, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group promoting nutrition and food safety.

Last year, California became the first state to mandate such displays, and New York City and Seattle are among the cities with local policies.

Tennessee is not likely to be next on the list, said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.

"Tennesseans don't like being told what to do," he said. "I think there are other ways to enact preventive health care initiatives in our state that will lead to a more-fit population. I don't think you have to regulate all the solutions."

Another bill, which has passed the Tennessee Senate and is pending in the House, would ban nonelected local government bodies from enacting laws requiring menu labeling.

Varying local rules would cause confusion and put a burden on restaurants that operate throughout the state, said Walt Baker, CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, which represents the hotel and restaurant industries in the state.

In their fight against rising obesity rates, health advocates say full disclosure of caloric and other nutritional information could help shock some diners into healthier choices.

"Seventy percent of Americans are eating out anyway. That's a big concern when you've got meals that are ranging in the 2,000- to 3,000-calories range, which is a full day's supply of calories for a fairly fit male," said Mr. Bilderback of Step ONE.

INDUSTRY NOT OPPOSED TO DISCLOSURE

Restaurant industry representatives said they are not opposed to providing nutritional information, which many chains already do voluntarily. For example, Hardees' Web site unabashedly advertises the 1,420-calorie Monster Thickburger.

"People want to make informed choices, and we want to help them," Mr. Baker said. "Our goal is to get (consistent regulations) over the biggest footprint as possible."

Sen. Kyle said one of the misconceptions of the Bredesen administration's stalled bill to mandate calorie counts is that complying would put financial burdens on small businesses. He emphasized that only large chains would be affected.

On the national scene, the Menu Education and Labeling Act, or MEAL Act, was introduced in Congress in May. The act would require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to display menu items' calorie count on their menu boards and menus.

The restaurant industry is backing a competing bill, the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act, or LEAN Act, which would give restaurants more flexibility in how they displayed such information, so long as they were "in plain view."

LEAN would help out restaurants struggling in the economic downturn by allowing them to avoid a costly overhaul of their menu boards, said Keisha Carter, public affairs director for the Georgia Restaurant Association.

Mr. Bilderback of the local health department said the more consumers demand such information, the more accepted it will become, even within the Tennessee and Georgia restaurant industries.

"It's only a matter of time," Mr. Bilderback said.

HEALTH COMMISSIONER RESPONSE

The Tennessee Department of Health helped write legislation that would have mandated that large chains post calorie counts on menu boards. The bill did not make it to a vote this session, but will be reintroduced next year.

Health Commissioner Susan Cooper said consumer demand for nutritional information is on the rise in Tennessee.

"Most consumers have a difficult time identifying the healthy choices on a menu. Menu labeling is one more tool in the toolbox to help Tennesseans take better control of their health," she said in an e-mailed statement. "I believe the General Assembly will listen to the voices of their constituents."

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