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Patron and Restaurant Rights: Changes in Law

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Restaurant General Information

Winter Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(4) page(s): 14

Restaurants have been making claims about the nutrition content of food without revealing the truth about what they are serving up. Soon that will be ancient history because after May 2, 1997, Restaurants must back up any and every menu health and nutrient claim that they make. Yes, they must follow the same labeling guidelines as do processed food manufacturers.

Thus, all restaurants in the United States, big or small, eat in or take out, will need to substantiate those claims that advise that a menu item is 'low in fat' or 'low in sodium' or one that says that it is 'light' or one that calls itself 'healthy' or uses any similar word or words. Restaurants must provide proper information to their customers about any such worded food item.

Restaurants can say a food is 'heart healthy' or 'low fat' if there is a 'reasonable basis' for the statement. Information about the menu item does not need to be on the menu, so menus as printed may be fine. However, restauranteurs will have to provided those customers that request the substantiating technical information. There is no requirement for individual menu items that make no health or nutrition claim, just for those that do.

The data the restauranteur provides can be calculated from a nutrient data base, found in a cookbook whose recipe they are using exactly as written if it provides nutrient analysis, or it can come from other 'reasonable' sources. It can not come from their heads or hearts just because they believe that to be true.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) encourages full nutrition information whenever possible, the nutrient information available can say things such as 'this meal or dish provides less than ten grams of fat' if it really has only that amount of fat. This nutrition/health information may be provided in a flier, a brochure, a poster or notebook, or it can be offered orally. However, any way it is given, it must be accurate. If no claim appears on the menu, or on the wall or window of the restaurant, then there are no requirements for nutrition claims.

In addition to the information provided, restaurants may offer alternative selections whose value in a diet conforms to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For example, they might say that an item 'may be prepared with half the oil, on request.' This is best highlighted on restaurant menus. Foods that meet these guidelines need to have their analysis prepared by a 'recognized dietary authority' (such as a dietitian).

With regard to general health claims, each of them must have two elements: a reference to a specific food or nutrient, and a reference to a disease-related condition. The FDA suggests that it may be easier to make nutrient claims than health claims because the latter are more extensive, complex, and difficult to substantiate.

All restaurants will have to understand these regulations and probably hire specialists such as dietitian/nutritionists to help them.

Dietitian/nutritionists are professionals licensed or certified by a state government, just as are doctors, dentists, and other health professionals. New York and at least thirty-five other states require such a license. Restaurant owner who ask someone to help them prepare the needed nutrition or health information should ask to see these credentials.

Remember, restaurants do not have to label nutritional contents of all menu items. They do need to provide information if they make a health pronouncement such as 'light in fiber.' And customers, remember that you can ask the restaurant to provide, in the above case, the information on the fiber content.

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