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McDonalds will post calorie info – thanks to the ACA

Posted by John McDonough  September 13, 2012 09:54 PM

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Today, the McDonalds restaurant chain announced that beginning on Monday it will post the calories in every item on their menus, including menu boards and drive-thru boards. And herein lies an interesting story.

A few years back when New York City and other localities began passing their own local laws to require posting of calories, McDonalds and other chains strongly opposed the requirement. My former boss in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), began introducing legislation in 2003 to create a national calorie-labeling requirement and faced a wall of opposition from the restaurant industry.

But in most cities and towns, the restaurant chains found themselves unable to beat back the requirements. And then they faced a problem because every locality defined the requirement in different ways, creating a caloric tower of Babel.

By the time the legislative process that led to passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka: ObamaCare) began, the industry knew they had already lost the war. Pretty soon, they saw federal health reform legislation as a way to rationalize the fast growing number of different calorie-labeling requirements.

So, with the public support and endorsement of the U.S. restaurant industry, Title IV of the ACA includes a federal requirement for all restaurant chains with at least 20 outlets to post calorie information on all their menus and menu boards, to be done in accordance with regulations promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The restaurant industry won one victory -- any state or municipality that had not adopted its own standard by the date the ACA was signed is pre-empted from passing its own calorie-labeling requirement, though the early birds may keep their prior systems in place.

And now McDonalds, which already posts calorie information in other nations such as the U.K., South Korea, and Australia, will jump the gun and begin complying with the federal requirement some months before the full mandate takes effect.

As Sarah Kliff describes in today's Wonkblog, the evidence that this makes any difference in eating habits is hard to find. Still, I spent about ten months in New York City in 2010 after I left working for the US Senate, and gave about 25-30 talks on the ACA all over the City. At each talk, I asked people to raise their hands if they ever found themselves changing their food buying habits because of seeing the calorie information. Each time, about 80-90% of audience members raised their hands.

I don't believe for a second that this requirement is the solution to the obesity epidemic. I don't believe any single intervention is the solution (unless, of course, everyone went on a vegan diet -- but that's another story!). It's going to take a range of initiatives to turn this epidemic around. And providing consumers with this kind of information -- what's not to like?

And, if you like it, you should know that it is now federal law because of ObamaCare. And if Mitt Romney gets his way and the ACA gets repealed, so does the calorie labeling requirement

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »

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