by Marion Nestle
Jun 18 2009

Food legislation (maybe)

Legislators in the new administration are working on food laws.  Here is a quick sample:

Calorie labeling: it looks like we have bipartisan support for national menu labeling.  If passed, calories will have to be disclosed on menu boards of fast food and vending machine chains throughout the country – and not just in New York City and the few states that have passed their own laws.   Lots of health organizations are backing this proposal.

Food safety: the House just passed its version of a bill that will overhaul some aspects of the present food safety system.  This bill still has a long way to go but is a hopeful sign that Congress might actually do something to fix the FDA.  What the bill does not do is deal with fixing the system.  It exempts meat, poultry, and eggs under USDA jurisdiction.

Produce safety: The new head of the FDA, Margaret Hamburg, says her agency is going to put special efforts into ensuring the safety of high-risk produce. To do that, she will need Congress to pass laws that, among other things, give the FDA the authority to order recalls and a lot more money to carry out its work.

Organics: The U.S. and Canada have agreed to coordinate their organic standards, so foods certified organic in Canada can be sold here and vice versa.  Let’s hope the most stringent standards prevail.

These are (somewhat) hopeful signs.  Let’s hope Congress manages to keep at this and tries to get it right.

  • Janet Camp

    I’m very pleased to hear that calorie labeling will likely happen, but what will qualify as “fast” food? It’s a start, but I’d like to see it everywhere–bakeries, all restaurants and the meat counter. So many people who claim that they cannot lose weight simply have no idea how many calories they are consuming or even what an appropriate portion is.

    I’d also like to see food labels give the total calories for the package in the case of chips and other snacks especially. People tend (if they look at all) to look at the per serving calorie count without noticing that there are EIGHT servings in that rather small bag!

    Note: Am I doing something wrong or is this site just different in the way that the comment box works? When I try to edit, the cursor jumps back to the “name” box unless I remember to use the arrow keys which isn’t the usual thing so I never remember–very frustrating although I’m starting to get the hang of it. Is it a “Mac” thing, perhaps?

  • Genie

    I think that this is going to powerfully affect the way chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s formulate and promote their foods.

    Do you think it will be perceived as a positive marketing tool to be mimicked by mom & pop shops everywhere?

    How is this bill anticipated to affect the amount of actual food in these items? To keep calories low, will there be a significant rise in non-food-like additives and fillers?

    (BTW, I love your blog and appreciate the info you provide.)

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  • Jon

    That’s an interesting question, Janet. Most people overestimate the calories of meat, but they severely underestimate the calories of junk food. (Mostly it’s a holdover from the low-fat days. But also because meat’s easier to remember than sodas.) They also underestimate the calories of condiments.

    And yes, the calories per package is important. It’s easy to eat a bag of Doritos.

  • Cindy

    I’m concerned that the food safety guidelines are really a ploy by big agribusiness to drive small, niche producers out of the market. Small local farmers are going to have a nearly impossible time complying with some of the proposed legislation.

  • Another e.coli contamination hits the headlines. Looks like the FDA will be continuing to feel the heat to get some real food safety regulation moving forward.

  • I have been a doctor for 50 years. Now devoted to healthy living, I do walk the talk. The real HealthCare crisis is:
    We live in a country in which there is too much food, brilliantly marketed and widely available and affordable. The food industry knows how to make us salivate, literally. David Kessler’s new book, “The End of Overeating” describes the strategy. The food industry is very good at giving us what we want: lots of salt, fat and sugar. Put all of those in our food and we will eat anything in any amounts. All of our holidays are celebrated by eating too much and then rolling around on the floor groaning with pleasure. We line up at restaurants that advertise “All You Can Eat!” The infamous but still popular Baskin Robbins’s Large Heath Bar Shake has 2310 calories, 266 g sugar and 108 gm fat. You know what they call that Heath Bar Shake? Your Last Meal!
    Pogo had it right when he said “We have met the enemy and he is us” We are doing it to ourselves with smiles on our faces. And an expanding waist line that tells our doctors we are headed for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.
    More correctly the enemy is the food industry that caters to our 10,000 years old appetites for salt, fat and sugar. And an ancient survival strategy: “clean your plate!”
    Until we deal with these problems, all the preventive medical tests, procedures and pills are just blowing in the wind.

  • Janet Camp


    Do you have info that chains like Applebees and Chili’s are included? I am wondering (as previously posted) if this legislation is limited to McDonald’s, Burger King, et al–those without wait staff?

    Dr. Bennett:

    As an anthropologist, I have been telling people for years that we are Pleistocene people (which is the crux of your argument) and must eat as such–which does not mean eating tons of meat. We were gatherer/hunters NOT hunter/gatherers. Meat was very important as an impetus to brain development probably, but was eaten in small amounts (even less by women and children perhaps). People subsisted on (sorry folks) roots, nuts and berries and other plants that were gathered on a daily, and sometimes seasonal, round, by women primarily. It was a struggle to get enough calories for the women to ovulate resulting in an average of four years between births (in “good” times). Like it or not, this is the way we evolved and as Dr. Kessler points out, with food on every corner and the social acceptability of eating any time, anywhere, we have allowed marketers to turn us into a bunch of lardbutts. My only question is this: why do some remain thin in spite of all this (other than those of us who struggle to thwart the marketers)? I think we all know someone who indulges in treats, eats regular meals, exercises a little, maybe, and remains thin. I’m thinking of my mother who at 5′ 3″ didn’t get to 100 pounds until she was 60ish. She eats candy, fries everything and walks somewhat regularly (though not all that far). Yesterday at Whole Foods I saw some absolutely anorexic-looking young woman enjoying a large gelato–go figure! It must be in the genes to some extent.

  • Auralee

    I am always amazed at the quantities of food that you have on your plate at the typical chain restaurant (which I try to avoid). People have no idea what they are eating in that meal–probably a day’s worth of calories. And when I go out to eat with others, generally the people I am with clean their plates, but I take half of mine home. Calorie labeling could only be a good thing.

  • I don’t think it’s realistic to expect small non-chain restaurants to try to figure out how many calories their special of the day is. It’s one thing if it’s a standard meal at a chain, but to expect some abuela to weigh how much cheese she puts in your cactus burrito is unrealistic, and I’d trust my own math first. I think people would be much better off learning to listen to their bodies signals of whether they’re hungry or not, rather than trying to calculate it, when those numbers are usually off anyway. If I eat a heavy lunch, I won’t be hungry for dinner, and will just eat a salad or some fruit, calorie count is irrelevant. Hopefully a person has the common sense to know that pizza is a not every day food, and sausage and cakes aren’t either.

  • Genie

    Janet– the way I read the information, it was any restaurant with more than 20 locations. I am assuming that Applebee’s will be included. I don’t really know if it is limited to wait-staff free restaurants.

    I also read that chains like Applebee’s will not be required to print it on menus– only required to post the info by the menu stand.

    I got this information by following the first and second links (respectively) provided in the above article by Ms Nestle.

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