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Health care reform includes calorie counts for some chain restaurants

A surprise stashed in the new health care reform law: Chain restaurants next year must start printing calorie counts on menus and posting nutritional content in stores.

Lost in the noise over the hospitality industry's opposition to employee health care dictates, the new requirements sailed under the radar largely because the National Restaurant Association backed menu labeling.

Lobbyists saw it as a way to head off at least 30 local and state governments that adopted or, like Florida, are weighing labeling laws of their own.

"We wanted a national standard so rules are uniform," said Susan Hensley, a spokeswoman for the restaurant trade group.

The "a href="http://www.fda.gov/">Food and Drug Administration will write rules that supersede any less-restrictive measures imposed by state or local governments.

Chains will have to post information on all regular items, but not specials. The format will be similar to nutritional information provided by the packaged-food industry. Key data like carbohydrates, sugar and calories from fat must be available in the restaurant, not just on a Web site.

There is plenty of opposition in the fragmented and fiercely independent restaurant industry.

"We'll do what consumers want, but you spend a lot to get nutritional information, but what about your one cook who uses an extra dollop of mayo?" said Nick Vojnovic, president of 250-store Beef 'O' Brady's. "If the government thinks this can reduce obesity, labels on packaged foods didn't."

However, he sees menu labeling as a prelude to smaller portions and curtains for calorie bombs like Chili's Awesome Blossom and Outback's Bloomin' Onion.

It remains to be seen how far restaurant menu labeling will spread. Only chains with at least 20 stores need comply. That's about 200,000 restaurants.

That sounds like a lot until you realize the new law spares 375,000 more traditional restaurants in the United States, plus a few hundred thousand school, hospital and workplace cafeterias.

• • •

Subway is taking its "$5 Footlong" to the breakfast table.

The sandwich board giant is opening at least two hours earlier to serve another meal.

While national advertising breaks next week, all 250 Subways around Tampa Bay will be serving breakfast no later than 7 a.m. weekdays by Friday.

The expanded menu includes egg or egg white and cheese omelettes with a variety of topping choices including ham, bacon or steak. Prices range from $1.75 to $2.25 on an English muffin, $2 to $3.50 for a 6-inch sandwich or flatbread and $4 to $6 for a footlong.

To join the breakfast bandwagon, Subway upgraded to Seattle's Best Coffee and pledged to switch to cage-free eggs (so far the few suppliers can fill only 4 percent of the chain's egg appetite.) Locally, Subways added hash browns and puff pastry stuffed with strawberry or apple cream cheese.

Subway spent years creating a breakfast menu that's been used by franchisees on commuter routes or transportation hubs.

"Now we are expanding to all 25,000 Subways in the U.S.," said Les Winograd, a spokesman for the Milford, Conn., chain.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Health care reform includes calorie counts for some chain restaurants 03/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 5:55pm]
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