A comprehensive menu labeling standard is needed to support healthy choices

This article was co-authored by former Secretaries Dan Glickman and Ann M. Veneman.

In an effort to help Americans make more informed food choices, the Affordable Care Act created a national menu labeling standard for food establishments with 20 or more locations. Recently, several types of establishments that serve food — for example, movie theaters and supermarkets — have sought exemption from calorie labeling requirements. Such exemptions would create a patchwork system that will prevent Americans from knowing the caloric content of far too much of the food they purchase and consume.

As a nation facing rising rates of obesity and related chronic diseases that cost our health care system hundreds of billions each year, we know we need to make prevention a primary focus. Healthy eating and active living, as recommended by the federal 2010 Dietary Guidelines and the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, are critical health behaviors that can prevent many chronic diseases. But changing individual behavior is only possible when supported by an environment that helps make the healthy choice the easy choice.

When families go to restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas, and supermarkets, they should have the option to eat healthier food and the calorie information they need to make informed choices between various food options. Just as when consumers compare nutritional labels on packaged foods at the grocery store, consumers should be able to compare the calorie content of foods in similar retail food establishments. For example, consumers should see labeling indicating that there are approximately 400 calories in a large soda at the stadium, 600 calories in a ready-to-eat side dish from a convenience store, and 1,000 calories in a large, movie theater popcorn.

As former agriculture secretaries who oversaw numerous U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, we believe our government needs consistent policy that is fair to consumers and to business. In a recent report we co-authored with former HHS Secretaries Donna Shalala and Mike Leavitt, we recommended a range of strategies to address these issues.

We urge the Food and Drug Administration in its final rulemaking to maintain consistency across retail food establishments that sell restaurant-type food, including movie theaters and supermarkets. This would align with congressional intent as expressed in the national menu labeling provision of the Affordable Care Act, which covers not only required menu labeling at chain restaurants but also calorie disclosures in similar retail food establishments, to maximize the ability of consumers to make informed choices.

We strongly support a comprehensive national menu labeling requirement and urge the administration to ensure that the final regulations are inclusive and informative for consumers, fair to all food-related businesses, and fulfill the congressional intent of the national menu labeling statute.

Dan Glickman served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 until 2001 and as Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association from 2004-2010. Ann M. Veneman served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 2001 until 2005. Together they co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative.

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