Massachusetts sets tough fast-food menu rules

Wed May 13, 2009 7:45pm BST

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* Rules apply to drive-through windows

* Regulations take effect Nov. 10, 2010

By Jason Szep

BOSTON, May 13 (Reuters) - Massachusetts approved the toughest statewide restaurant menu labeling rules in the United States on Wednesday, requiring major chain restaurants to display the calorie content of the food they sell.

The regulations, designed to combat rising obesity, are more comprehensive than those in California, which in September became the first state with menu labeling rules for fast-food restaurant chains such as McDonald's Corp (MCD.N) and Yum Brands'(YUM.N) KFC, advocates of healthy foods say.

Approved by the Massachusetts Public Health Council, the rules will require restaurant chains with 20 or more in-state locations to post calorie counts next to each item on their menus or menu boards, including those at drive-throughs.

The requirements take effect Nov. 1, 2010, and will apply to 50 restaurant chains with a combined 5,800 locations.

"This is a major step in the right direction in fighting the obesity epidemic in our state," Massachusetts Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach said in a statement.

More than half of the adults in Massachusetts are overweight or obese, according to a 2008 state report that also showed adult obesity more than doubling in 20 years. About 33 percent of Americans are overweight, while more than 34 percent are obese, according to U.S. government figures.

GROWING TREND

A restaurant calorie information rule took effect in New York City last year, and more than a dozen states are considering similar provisions.

Unlike California, the Massachusetts regulations will cover items at restaurant drive-through windows. About 65 percent of fast food is purchased at drive-through windows, said Judy Grant, campaign director of the healthy food advocacy group ValueTheMeal.org.

Massachusetts also will not override regulations in municipalities that impose even stricter labeling rules at fast-food restaurants, she added. In California, for example, menu labeling rules passed in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties were nullified by the state law.

Grant said those two features make the Massachusetts rules the most stringent of any state in the country.

Some restaurant companies have objected to additional government regulations. In New York City, for example, some have fought the menu labeling rules with lawsuits.

Many chains instead support proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress known as the "Lean Act" that would require restaurants and grocery stores that serve prepared food to post the calories on a sign on the same wall as a menu board or as a supplement to or insert in a menu.

Critics of that legislation say it would merely tuck calorie information at the back of menus or in a separate brochure. They say consumers need to know the nutritional value of meals because more people than ever are dining out. (Editing by Terry Wade)

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