Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tennessee won't require restaurants to list calories; Nashville still on track

Phil Bredesen's proposal to require calorie counts on menus at chain restaurants in Tennessee has failed for the year. The proposal carried by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory was sent to a summer study committee by the Public Health and Family Assistance Subcommittee on Tuesday. The move means Davidson County's menu labeling ordinance, adopted in March, remains on track to go into effect March 31, 2010. A state law would have pre-empted a local law. Metro's menu labeling law requires calorie counts to be next to food items on menus or display boards. It applies to chains with 15 or more outlets nationwide, not mom-and-pop eateries or local restaurants. It also exempts institutions such as schools, entertainment venues such as movie theaters and lodging. Calories don't have to be posted for wine and alcoholic drinks. A bill was introduced in the Metro Council challenging the health board's authority to make a menu labeling rule. It was deferred in April. Several House subcommittee members raised concerns about whether the calorie counts would be an effective tool to fight obesity and diabetes. "It seems to me to be a little obvious that Big Macs make you fat," said Republican Rep. Vance Dennis of Savannah. State Health Commissioner Susan Cooper said the proposal would have followed similar laws in New York City and California. "This isn't about a Big Mac in particular, it's about how many calories exist in a meal, which is very deceptive," she said. "Is it to tell people what to eat? No. It's to arm them with the data to make the best decisions." The menu requirements were aimed at chains with more than 20 restaurants nationwide. But members of the committee expressed concerns about the costs to business owners. "Before we issue a mandate for all these businesses in Tennessee to do this, we need to get a little more solid numbers and feedback as to whether this actually works," said Dennis. Democratic Rep. Jeanne Richardson of Memphis said she was wary of imposing the menu requirements on businesses when the same rules aren't in place for schools, where many children acquire eating habits they keep later in life. Richardson also jokingly asked whether the administration had chosen the hulking Turner to carry the bill for any specific reason. "I want you to know the fast food industry did this to me," Turner joked back. Another Democrat, Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville, made the motion to study the proposal before giving it another shot next year. That motion passed on a voice vote, to the apparent disappointment of the panel's chairman, Rep. Joey Hensley, a Hohenwald Republican and a physician. "I wanted to vote it down," he said after the vote prevailed.

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