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Nutritionists And Restaurant Owners Argue Over Menu Food Labels

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BETHESDA, Md. - A coalition of nutritionists and legislators is calling for restaurants to post nutritional labels to fight obesity, but a panel of restaurateurs told the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday that such a measure would be impractical, counterproductive and largely ignored by consumers.

Addressing an FDA-sponsored conference to analyze the links between nutrition labels and obesity, Mats Lederhausen, president of McDonald's Business Development Group, said the restaurant chain opposes any labeling campaign that creates negative attitudes about its food.

"Guilt, fear and anxiety are not good motivators," Lederhausen told an audience of regulators, nutritionists and academics. "That's why most anti-smoking, anti-drinking and driving campaigns do not change behavior." He also said he doubted the labels would have any impact since obesity rates have increased in the dozen years since nutritional labels were required on packaged foods.

Linda Bacin, vice president of Bella! Bacino's pizza chain in Chicago, said nutritional labeling at the chain's eight restaurants would be impossible because patrons customize their orders. Just recently, she said, a customer on the Atkins diet ordered a spinach pizza without the crust.

The conference was part of a six-month review by a FDA obesity task force that is trying to figure out ways that the agency can help to curb the nation's obesity epidemic.

The task force is expected to make recommendations on Feb. 11 on ways to improve the nutrition label on the side of food packages and improve consumer education on nutrition. The task force is also charged with coming up with ideas to give nutritional information to restaurant customers, though the FDA doesn't have the authority to require restaurants to comply, said Peter Pitts, the agency's vice president of external affairs.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is pushing a bill in Congress that would require nutritional labels at restaurants. Similar measures are being considered in seven states, according to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a not-for-profit group that endorses the labeling.

Wootan complained that only restaurant industry officials were allowed on Thursday's panel, which was originally billed as a review of the pros and cons of nutrition labels in restaurants. She said the most common complaint from the industry, that labeling is impractical because of customer modifications to the menu, is addressed in federal and state legislation.

Earlier in the day, several experts urged the FDA to reconfigure existing nutritional labels on the sides of food packages so that they emphasize calories and portion size. The label, they said, is often ignored and confusing. For instance, a 20-ounce soda is often labeled as more than one serving, but consumers consider it a single drink.

Others suggested that some of the numbers and percentages on the labels should largely be scrapped in favor of simple graphics. "Consumers really shouldn't have to have a degree in nutrition or carry a calculator ... in order to understand what it takes to buy healthy foods," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Underlying the conference was a consistent question about how many consumers pay attention to nutrition labels.

Susan Borra, director of nutrition at the International Food Information Council, said 54 percent of consumers surveyed made decisions based on what they learned from food labels. But while 85 percent of those surveyed said nutrition was important to them, only 28 percent had actually made changes to their eating habits.

As if to prove the point, the FDA served its guests softball-sized muffins during a morning break, a nutritional blunder that became a recurring joke during the day. But by the afternoon break, the FDA had come up with more appropriate snacks: fruit and yogurt.


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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