Congress girds for food fight over calories

WASHINGTON — A proposed federal rule that could force convenience stores, pizza joints and supermarkets to post calorie counts on ready-to-eat food items is causing political heartburn on Capitol Hill.

As a result, a group of lawmakers has introduced the Common Sense Nutrition Act aimed at limiting the scope of the requirement, largely to restaurants.

“The rules the government now seeks to impose on pizza alone would force these guys to wallpaper their stores with calorie information on every possible combination of toppings, while the majority of their customers order delivery over the phone and never come in — and that’s crazy,” said Texas Republican Rep. John Carter, who’s leading the group.

But Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said: “What’s the difference between going into McDonald’s and getting a burger and a soda or going into 7-Eleven and getting a hot dog and a soda? Why should one be covered and one not?”

The issue is shaping up as the next big food fight in Congress, which last year debated whether pizza should be considered a vegetable. Congress declared that two tablespoons of tomato paste slathered on pizza could continue to be classified as a full vegetable serving in the federal school lunch program.

The new controversy stems from a requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the controversial health care overhaul that was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under a proposed federal regulation, food establishments with 20 or more locations would be required to list calorie information on ready-to-eat food.

The convenience store, pizza and supermarket industries have complained that the mandate would be a costly burden.

Under the proposal, some supermarkets could be forced to post calorie information on thousands of items, from chicken cooked in the store to potato salad sold in the deli, said Erik Lieberman, regulatory counsel at the Food Marketing Institute, which represents large supermarket chains.

“If we sell an individual blueberry muffin, that has to be labeled,” he said. “If we sell a pack of six, that’s got to have a separate label.”

The bill seeks to limit the mandate to businesses that derive at least half of their revenue from food served for immediate consumption or processed and prepared on site, thereby exempting most convenience stores and supermarkets from the mandate.

It also would allow delivery and take-out restaurants to post their calorie information on their websites instead of in their stores. Wootan said she believes the information should be posted where people who are ordering are most likely to see it, such as on menus.

Peter J. Larkin, president and chief executive of the National Grocers Association, welcomed the proposed legislation, saying it would “ensure independent retail grocers are not subjected to millions of dollars in new and unnecessary expenses and administrative burdens because of regulatory overreach.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has pushed to give consumers more nutrition information, said: “Americans purchase ready-to-eat food from a large number of retail food operations, including grocery stores and theaters, which serve not just snacks, but combo meals that individuals and families choose to eat for lunch or dinner, like pizza, hot dogs, egg rolls, and nachos.

“That’s why we always intended a broad definition of retail food operations, subject to exemptions for small business, in the Affordable Care Act, and why we worked with the National Restaurant Association to ensure requirements that are not overly burdensome.

“Efforts to keep consumers in the dark are unnecessary and out of touch — according to a recent survey, more than 70 percent of Americans favor having movie theaters, convenience stores, and supermarkets list calorie counts for their prepared foods,” he said in a statement.

Responding to Wootan’s remarks that 7-Elevens should be treated no differently than McDonald’s, Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores, said: “One’s a restaurant and one isn’t. One has a few dozen items, one has thousands. One has a relatively stable menu, one often has a rotating one.”

Wootan was unsympathetic.

“This is all about allowing supermarkets and convenience stores an out to providing their customers nutrition information at a time when childhood and adult obesity is a huge national public health problem.”

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