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Editorial: FDA should move ahead on rules for calorie-count menus

Mar. 13, 2013 @ 09:30 PM

Last fall, fast-food industry leader McDonald's began posting the calorie counts of all its offerings on the menu over the counter.

There was good news with several new items that totaled 400 calories or less, but the menu board also revealed some things we might rather not think about. For example, a big burger, large fries and 16-ounce soda can total more than 1,400 calories, about two-thirds of the total daily recommended intake for many men.

To its credit, McDonald's was reacting in a positive way to our country's crisis with weight gain. In 1985, the obesity rate was only 10 percent or more in a handful of states. Today, the Center for Disease control estimates that about 35 percent of the U.S. population is obese. The trend line is even more dramatic for children and teens, and as we all know, our region has some of the worst numbers in the country, contributing to a host of other health problems.

Including calorie counts on menus is just one way to make people more aware of what they are eating, but it is an important one. In West Virginia and many other states, as much as 50 percent of the consumers' "food dollars" are spent in restaurants, according to industry estimates.

While much of what you buy at the grocery store includes calorie and nutrition information, we do not always know a lot about what we are getting when we eat out.

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged this week that it is running behind in its efforts to implement a 2010 health care law that would require restaurant chains to do what McDonald's has done voluntarily.

The FDA was charged with writing the rules and made a proposal in 2011, but the final rules have been delayed as various non-restaurant businesses have lobbied to be exempt from the requirements. In particular, vending companies, convenience stores and groceries feel the proposed regulations would be too costly for them. The rules, which would apply to chains with 20 or more locations, already exempt other businesses whose primary business is not food, such as movie theaters, airplanes and bowling alleys.

While most of the packaged items in groceries and convenience stores already are labeled, those industries are worried about their prepared food such as deli and bakery items. Vending companies complain that the rules would require signage unless the calorie information was visible in the machine.

But it seems unfair to exempt these pieces of the food chain, because they are selling "meals to go" just like McDonald's.

The FDA needs to move ahead with the calorie-information rules, and moving forward the food industry needs to be a part of the solution by making sure that the public understands what it is buying.

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