Lawmakers in Congress and a number of prominent health organizations want the public to know the components of the hamburgers, french fries, and shakes that have become a mainstay in the nation's diet. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) has introduced legislation in Congress to force the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling of ingredients by fast-food restaurants. A similar bill, drafted by Sen. John H. Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, was introduced in the Senate last month.
About 40 million Americans eat at fast-food restaurants every day. From 1960 to 1985, the number of Americans consuming fast foods rose from 19 percent to nearly 28 percent.
``I am not proposing the creation of a new law,'' Representative Solarz stated recently, ``but am merely calling for the enforcement of existing regulations -- regulations the government obviously thought important enough to create, but which the FDA and the USDA have since chosen to ignore.''
As a result of petitions filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) with the New York State Attorney General's office, McDonald's will begin a voluntary program of ingredient disclosure in the state on July 1. The fast-food chain will also switch from beef tallow to vegetable oil in preparing its Chicken McNuggets and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.
Medical experts have tied such health risks as allergic reactions, high blood pressure, and even death to ingestion of ingredients consumers don't know about.
Mitchell Zeller, staff attorney for CSPI, a nonprofit consumer health organization, says last June several health and consumer groups petitioned the FDA and USDA to enforce mandatory ingredient labeling provisions for prepackaged fast foods. The USDA denied the petition in December; the FDA has not yet responded.
According to Nancy Robinson of the USDA's Public Information office, ``we've never required those restaurants to label those products'' bacause they have traditionally left enforcement of the measure up to the states. The agency felt it would be ``very burdensome for the companies'' to comply, Ms. Robinson says, and would require ``additional dollars for us to enforce it.''
Speaking for the FDA's Office of Enforcement, Robert Lake challenges the view that requiring the labeling is within their jurisdiction, but concedes that ``some authority does exist for doing some of the things'' outlined in the CSPI petition. He added that the CSPI petition is ``still under evaluation.'' He also points out lack of resources, saying the number of FDA inspectors has dropped dramatically over the years.
Reports by the CSPI indicate that an average meal consisting of a quarter-pound burger, fries, and a shake contain 15 teaspoons of grease, close to the maximum daily fat intake recommended for an average adult. CSPI also notes that many restaurants fry foods in almost pure beef fat rather than in vegetable oil.
In addition to fats, other components such as sodium, cholesterol, artificial flavorings and colorings, and unexpected ingredients, such as sugar in bacon bits, corn syrup in salad dressings, or Yellow Dye No. 5 in ice cream cones, would be listed on wrappers, tray liners, or on wall charts under provisions of the legislation.
When CSPI wrote to 13 major fast-food chains about ingredients, only Arby's provided them with significant information. Others either failed to respond, or classified the ingredients as confidential.
In a statement following the New York agreement, McDonald's president Edward H. Rensi said, ``Putting this information in our restaurants is just one more step we're taking to help our customers make informed choices about what they eat. We encourage all full-service and quick-service restaurants to do the same.''
Should legislation pass, says food industry analyst Michael Esposito of Oppenheimer and Company, the effect will be minimal. ``I believe most fast-food companies feel that the theoretical negative backlash of people not knowing what's in these foods is much worse than knowing what the actual ingredients are,'' Mr. Esposito says. ``Most of them will be thrilled to do this,'' because, in his experience, ``if you look at the chains, there's nothing secret going on.''
Major opposition to the legislation is expected to come from the national restaurant industry, which, says Zeller, fears this step will lead to similar requirements for all restaurants. ``We're not asking for that. It's not really feasible,'' he states, pointing out that most traditional restaurants change their menus daily, as well as the ingredients in various dishes. ``But wherever you go, McDonald's is McDonald's is McDonald's.''