Wednesday, July 1, 2009

JUST THE (NUTRITIONAL) FACTS : State law requires some chain restaurants to tell consumers more about the food they eat


July 1, 2009 7:26 AM

A state law in effect today requiring large restaurant chains to provide nutrition information to the public for all menu items is being met with mixed reviews.

Beth Mansfield, manager of public relations for Carpinteria-based CKE Restaurants, which runs such popular restaurant chains as Carl's Jr., calls the law heavy-handed.

"It should be up to the consumer to handle their dietary needs," she said.

CKE is complying with the law, however, and pamphlets are provided at every restaurant location bearing complete nutrition information.

Drive-through customers will be made aware of the pamphlets by a notification on the outside menu board.

Mrs. Mansfield said that customers who requested nutrition information in the past were directed to posters, which already hung in the restaurants.

"We also have all the information on our Web site," she said, "so they can build their whole meal ahead of time."

The law applies to chains with 20 or more locations in the state. Its author, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, said he wrote it that way to prevent placing too much of a burden on smaller family-owned restaurants.

Phase two of the law requires restaurants to list comprehensive nutrition information on menu boards.

Non-compliance with the law can result in fines of up to $500, which is a figure that will be determined by local law enforcement, according to Sen. Padilla's chief of staff, Bill Mabie.

"Typically the county health inspector will be the one to make that call," he said.

McDonald's also has posters of comprehensive nutrition information on its wall.

The popular fast -food pillar has offered the information for several years, and before this new law, offered it in five different ways, according to Danya Proud, a McDonald's spokeswoman.

In a statement she said, "nutrition information is currently available on our Web site, via a toll-free telephone number, on select product packaging, in-restaurant brochures and on the back of trayliners in nearly 14,000 McDonald's restaurants throughout the United States, including California."

At the McDonald's on upper State Street, Manager Gabriela Velazquez said she is ready and excited to make customers more aware of what they eat.

"We don't really have to change anything yet," she said, "but we are already trying something new."

She explained that every McDonald's location already has brochures in place to distribute. The upper State location prints the nutrition information for the meal that is purchased on the back of the receipt.

If it proves successful, the system will be used in surrounding McDonald's locations.

"People think that we want to hide it," said Mrs. Velazquez, "but we don't want to hide it! We want people to know we have healthier options."

She said that although McDonald's has already been offering the information for about 30 years, customers still ask for the information.

"They do it especially with new or promotional products that aren't on the poster yet," she said, "but we have that information separately and give it to them when they ask."

On a personal note, she is also thrilled with the law.

"I think it's a great thing as a consumer," she said. "You wanna know what you're eating, and sometimes I am surprised when I go somewhere that they don't have the information."

California is the first state to require chains to disclose the number of calories in each menu item.

The California Restaurant Association, which initially fought the measure, got on board after a provision was added preventing similar ordinances from being implemented on a local level.

Restaurant-goers have varied opinions about the law.

"It's a good idea because people should know what they're eating," said Terry Lammers, a 34-year resident of Santa Barbara. "They shouldn't assume that people will study it on their own."

Mr. Lammers added that "it might make (Californians) healthier."

Darren Gortz, a tour guide who leads people from all around the world through California, agrees.

"I think it's great!" said Mr. Gortz. "It's always good to know what you're eating."

But some are not as excited for the new laws.

Santa Barbara resident Janice Frecker said she hardly cares about the newly-required transparency.

"I wish we wouldn't even have chain restaurants," she said.

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