Group Plugs Educated Eating

Effort Encounters Wide Opposition From Restaurants

Posted December 4, 2007 at 4:55pm

Christina Plourde and her classmates pursuing master’s degrees in public health at The George Washington University knew long before last week that Americans are overwhelmingly ignorant about the nutritional content of what they eat.

But last week Plourde and her cohorts took to the streets in an effort to convince skeptics, and to make the case that the D.C. Menu Education and Labeling Act would help eliminate

that ignorance.

The bill, introduced by Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At large), would require all District restaurants with 10 or more locations nationwide to post nutritional information on calories, carbohydrates, sodium and fat content on their menus or menu boards. According to a list compiled by Mendelson’s office in February, it would affect 78 D.C. chains, including some in Union Station and the Capital Grille on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast.

The legislation is stalled in the council, however, as Mendelson has struck opposition from Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and apparent indifference from Councilmember David Catania (I-At-large), who chairs the Health Committee.

To get the bill moving, on a chilly day last week Plourde and other members of her group, DC Voices for MEAL Choices, gathered in front of the D.C. government’s Wilson Building for a demonstration. They laid out three breakfast foods — a blueberry muffin, glazed donut and bagel with cream cheese — and asked people to choose the healthiest item.

“People generally picked the unhealthiest option,” Plourde said. “Most chose the muffin or the bagel, when those two had almost double the calorie content of the donut.”

Considering the anecdotes DC Voices picked up at its “eat-in,” Plourde said, it is no surprise that Centers for Disease Control figures show that 59 percent of D.C. residents were either overweight or obese in 2005.

According to the Trust for America’s Health, in 2004 D.C. held the dubious distinction of being the No. 1 city for overweight children, with 23 percent falling into that category compared with 15 percent nationally.

During the demonstration, DC Voices urged residents to register their support for the MEAL Act with councilmembers. The student advocates also lobbied the councilmembers themselves.

But legislators haven’t been able to signal their positions yet because Catania has yet to hold a hearing on the bill, which was introduced in March. That has DC Voices doubting his support.

“We have repeatedly tried to get a meeting with Catania’s office to specifically discuss the bill and why it hasn’t been introduced to committee, etc., and we have not been able to establish that,” Plourde said. “We keep getting that they’re understaffed and don’t have time, and they keep giving us the runaround. I don’t know if it’s true that they don’t have time or if they don’t support the bill, but we have heard from multiple sources that he doesn’t support the bill.”

Catania’s chief of staff, Ben Young, said only that a hearing had not been scheduled. He declined to comment on the bill or make Catania available for an interview.

But Andrew Klein, counsel for RAMW, argued that the bill would require significant cost for restaurants to research their food’s nutritional content — he said one local restaurant found it would cost $67,000 — and make changes to their menus.

He added that the labeling would not guarantee healthier eating.

“We have had labeling on grocery store products for a number of years, and obesity has become an even greater problem in this country,” Klein said. “There isn’t any evidence in the world that labeling on grocery store products has addressed the problem. We see it as a problem of education, and a one-size-fits-all solution just does not accomplish that.”

But according to Mendelson spokesman Jason Shedlock, more than half of the chains in D.C. that would be affected by the bill already have nutritional information on their Web sites. It wouldn’t cost much to transfer that to menus, he said, and the info isn’t of much use on the Internet.

“People aren’t going to go online before they go out to eat,” Shedlock said.

“One way to look at it is, yeah, if you have Internet access 24/7 or are able to go online and research each restaurant, you can find nutrition information,” Plourde said. “But with sit-down restaurants it’s harder to find that info. Especially if you’re a person with a busy schedule, obese or not, trying to run out between meetings and get something to eat, you’re not going to go to a computer. It’s that extra step. People don’t have time.”

But Klein said consumers are responsible for knowing what they’re eating.

“As prevalent as online usage is, if they’re not even going to bother to go to an Internet site, then clearly they don’t care about the information,” he said. “The issue is not sticking the information in front of their face. The issue is educating consumers about the importance of the information that in most cases is readily available.”

Klein said the restaurant association is confident the bill is opposed by a majority of the council and won’t be passed.

The sides won’t know if a compromise is possible until a hearing is held, Shedlock said. “It’s frustrating for us because Catania won’t have a hearing on it,” he said. “Whether or not we would make some concessions has yet to be seen because we need to have people come and testify and say what needs to be changed.”

If Catania refuses to move the bill forward, Mendelson has two seldom-used options: try to get a majority of the five- member health panel to do an end-run around its chairman and vote the bill to the full council, or rewrite the bill so it goes to a different committee.

Both options jeopardize a member’s relationship with the chairman, and Shedlock said rewriting the bill would be “nearly impossible.”

“We’ve thought about it,” he said, “but it just would be pretty blatant and transparent to write it in a different way. Nothing is off the table, but this bill deserves to go through the proper channel. Our first and main strategy is for it to go through the proper channel.”