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Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor, announces new menu legislation outside a Chili's restaurant.
Brian Baer MBR
Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor, announces new menu legislation outside a Chili's restaurant.

Law will force chains to put nutrition data on their menus

California passes legislation requiring restaurant chains to provide customers with nutritional data.

Denver, Colorado // It just became a little harder to enjoy a Big Mac and a large order of fries in the state of California. In an effort to combat a growing obesity epidemic, the state governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has signed a bill requiring chain and fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts and other nutritional data on their menus and menu boards. "This legislation will help Californians make more informed, healthier choices by making calorie information easily accessible at thousands of restaurants throughout our state," Mr Schwarzenegger said in a bill-signing ceremony this week. Restaurant chains with 20 or more locations in California will be required to list calorie information on menu boards by Jan 1 2011. As of July, they will have to provide brochures listing nutritional information including grams of saturated fat, grams of carbohydrates and milligrams of sodium. The bill is in part an answer to health advocates who charge that restaurant chains pack their meals - even those billed as healthy - with salt, sugar and saturated fat. A McDonald's chicken caesar salad, for example, has 410 calories and 19 grams of fat, making it less dietetic than the chain's cheeseburger, which rings in at 350 calories and 17 grams of fat. "The days of chain restaurants marketing a calorie-laden sandwich as 'lite, guiltless or healthy' are over in California," said Harold Goldstein, of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which helped sponsor the bill. "When Californians walk into a chain or fast-food restaurant, the calorie information they need to make healthier decisions will be right in front of them," Mr Goldstein said. The advocacy centre sponsored a fast-food quiz among California voters last year to see how many could correctly estimate the calories in fast-food menu items. More than two-thirds of the respondents failed every question on the test. More than 10,000 restaurants will be affected by the legislation - the first of its kind passed by a US state. Sixteen other states are considering similar legislation. "By being the first state to provide this information to consumers, California is continuing to lead the nation with programmes and policies that promote health and nutrition," said Mr Schwarzenegger, who before he made his fame acting was a champion bodybuilder. A survey by the Field Research Corporation found 84 per cent of Californians support the bill. However, restaurant chains are grumbling about the new regulations, which they say will increase costs and confuse customers. Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association, complained that the bill "places an onerous and intrusive burden on restaurateurs that will have no effect on obesity rates". Danya Proud, a spokesman for McDonald's, said the chain had supplied nutritional information to its customers for decades and remained committed to working closely with Mr Schwarzenegger to keep Californians healthy. State health officials say drastic action - not just menu labelling - is necessary to avert an obesity crisis. Californians have gained a whopping 163 million kilograms over the past decade, according to the California department of public health. One in three children and one in four teenagers are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death among Californians after tobacco, and state officials calculate it costs California US$28.5 billion (Dh105bn) in healthcare costs, lost productivity and workers' compensation. "Menu labelling by itself won't end the obesity epidemic, but it's sure a good place to start," Mr Goldstein said. "Just like smoke-free restaurants, I expect menu labelling will quickly sweep the nation as other states recognise the benefit of providing consumers with basic nutrition information." gpeters@thenational.ae

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