WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government is considering encouraging or even requiring restaurants to include labels on their menus specifying how many calories are in each item.
Joseph Levitt, vice chairman of a Food and Drug Administration committee studying obesity, said Thursday that menu labels are among the many proposals the agency is considering to help people watch what they eat.
The agency also may change its requirements for nutrition labels on food sold in grocery stores and other outlets.
Levitt said FDA officials are conferring with the restaurant industry, food processors and consumer groups to figure out whether it should issue new regulations or just write guidelines suggesting changes with the aim of helping consumers improve their eating habits.
"It's not precisely clear at FDA what our role should be," he said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been pressing the restaurant industry to put nutrition labels on its menus.
Allison Whitesides, director of legislative affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said the industry group opposes mandatory labels on menus. It would be especially cumbersome for restaurants that change their menus from day to day, she said.
"We're not a box, we're not a can," said Whitesides. "Cooking is an art. It's not an exact science."
Whitesides, however, said the industry might consider a voluntary program. She said some fast-food chains, including McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King, already display calorie information about their meals on their Web sites.
The FDA says it will release its plan to fight obesity by February.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regards fat as a leading health problem, estimating that 15 percent of children and 65 percent of all adults are overweight. A recent spate of lawsuits has food companies and restaurants fearing they may be blamed for it.
Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president for the National Food Processors Association, said the FDA should change its standards for nutrition labeling.
Now, the labels focus too heavily on telling consumers the amount of fat in food, she said. They need to tell consumers more about calorie content and how to protect themselves from gaining too much weight.
"The food label can and should be used to create healthful diets," Applebaum said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)