Calorie-counting bill advances in Senate

A state Senate committee narrowly passed legislation Tuesday that would require chain restaurants to post calorie information on their menus.

The Health and Welfare Committee voted 4-3 to advance the legislation. The bill goes to the full Senate for consideration.

A little-known provision of the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act required nutrition labeling of standard menu items at chain restaurants with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name.

Under the ACA, state or local governments would not be able to impose different or additional requirements. Final federal regulations are due out later this year.

State Sen. David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, proposed Senate Bill 512 to be Louisiana’s version of the nutrition labeling requirement. He would have it apply to chain restaurants with 15 or more locations. The federal act sets the level at 20 locations.

Louisiana is considered the most obese state in the nation. Nutritional information would make people more cognizant of the calories they are consuming, Heitmeier said.

State Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, said the initiative is designed “to encourage the consumer to go out there and get more healthy.”

Stan Harris, president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, warned against passing a law that would be in conflict with federal regulations, once they are passed. It would be confusing and costly to Louisiana restaurant chains covered by the menu labeling requirement and deter investment in the state, he said.

“The sensitivity is there,” Harris said. He said some major national chains, such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, already provide nutritional data.

Heitmeier said he will continue to work with the Restaurant Association.

“These are some complex issues,” Heitmeier said. “I am comfortable we can work through these issues and not affect jobs in this great state.”

Voting to send the bill to the Senate floor were Sens. Heitmeier, Erdey, Bret Allain, R-Franklin, and Yvonne Dorsey Colomb, D-Baton Rouge. Voting against SB512 were Sens. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge; Sherri Buffington, R-Keithville; and Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas.

“It seemed to be duplicitous, and it also seemed to be unnecessary government regulation,” Claitor said. “It’s not like folks can’t figure this out.”

Heitmeier’s bill would affect eating establishments that do business under the same trade name in 15 or more locations, at least one of which is located in Louisiana, that offers predominantly the same type of meals, food, beverages or menus, regardless of the ownership of different locations.

The chain restaurant would have to list on a food display tag, menu or menu board the total calories per serving of each food and beverage item listed for sale. The calorie statement would have to be clear and conspicuous, adjacent to or in close proximity to the item, printed in a font and format as prominent in size and appearance as the name or price of the item. Alcoholic beverages would have to meet the same standards.

Under SB512, the chain restaurant would also have to post in a prominent location the following statement: “To maintain a healthy weight, a typical adult should consume approximately 2,000 calories per day; however, individual calorie needs may vary.”

The state Department of Health and Hospitals would inspect for compliance with the law.

If violations are found, the establishment would have 60 days to fix the problem without incurring a fine. If the violation is not fixed, the restaurant would be subject to a fine of between $250 and $1,000.

Some states already have laws on the books.

California was the first state to enact a statewide menu labeling law requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations in state to disclose calorie and nutrition information. That was in 2008 - prior to the federal health revamp’s passage. New York City’s Health Department started requiring posting of calorie information the same year.

Maine, Massachusetts and Oregon adopted the laws in 2009 while New Jersey and Tennessee followed in 2010.