As he finishes a plate of chips and salsa at El Torito, a Mexican restaurant here, Norman Oberstein says a menu that listed the calorie counts of his favorite choices would be a great idea.
"When I go to the grocery, I know what I'm getting and how fat it might make me, but here there isn't any information at all so I just order what I want and forget worrying about it," he says.
Twenty feet away, Michelle Ward disagrees. "I might be heartbroken if I knew how many calories were in some of my favorite foods," she says.
Whether to require detailed nutritional information on restaurant menus or brochures is under scrutiny as never before. Some see it as a way to help curb high obesity rates by encouraging healthier eating, while restaurant representatives claim that mandatory measures would be burdensome and wouldn't stem obesity. To other lawmakers, labeling is the latest example of excessive government interference.
It has been stirring debate in legislatures around the country. In California, a bill requiring that restaurant chains of 15 or more display nutritional data on calories, carbohydrates, sodium, saturated fats, and transfats has narrowly passed the legislature and awaits the governor's pen. King County in Washington State already has such a law on the books, and Montgomery County in Maryland, Philadelphia, Connecticut, and at least a dozen other states and localities are considering similar measures.
"Menu labeling has become one of the top public-health priorities nationally," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit organization in Washington, advocating nutrition and health issues.
Last week, a federal judge struck down a New York City ordinance enacted in December 2006, that was limited to restaurants voluntarily providing such information. But Ms. Wootan and others say the ruling paves the way for other cities and states to implement laws because the judge determined that states can require nutrition labeling in chain restaurants.
"The New York decision is good news for the rest of America," says Wootan, who is working with 21 cities or states to help craft their legislation. "Interest is growing, and California is blazing the trail."
Similar bills have failed in California in the past. But this year, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D) worked with several restaurant associations to be careful not to hurt smaller establishments, and to accommodate some concerns of larger chains – which is that alcohol and special items be exempted.
Senator Padilla, who was a volunteer for the American Diabetes Association for seven years, says this bill is "fundamental in assuring Californians' healthcare. This is one of those laws that can change the world.… Once this information is available to a consumer, we can insure healthier eating by Americans."
Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, who helped guide the law through the assembly, has a similar view. "There has been a clear cause and effect between the growing obesity in this country and the number of times people are going out to eat," says Mr. DeSaulnier, who was a restaurateur for 32 years.
Both the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society backed the bill, and statewide polls show that more than 80 percent of Californians support it. A variety of national polls indicate that a majority of Americans support such measures as well, according to the CSPI.
"This is clearly an epidemic, and this is one of the most important tools we have to change the trends in obesity," says DeSaulnier.
Despite the positive poll numbers, the California measure hit heavy opposition from other lawmakers, and barely made it through the Assembly by a vote of 10 to 6. "This is yet another example of nanny government," said Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi, who sought to defeat the bill.
The restaurant industry, too, fought hard against it. "This legislation places an onerous and intrusive burden on restaurateurs that will have no effect on obesity rates and opens the door for frivolous lawsuits," said the California Restaurant Association in a statement.
Nationally, restaurant owners say they worry about the cost and hassle of providing such information. Chain restaurants already provide nutrition details to consumers in brochures, posters, tray liners, computer kiosks, and websites, they say, and changes in restaurants' menus and recipes as well as patrons' customized meals make the practice impractical and misleading.
"We are in favor of the trend to carry more nutritional information," says Sue Hensley, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association (NRA). "But we are in favor of voluntary measures and worry about accurate information in a one-size-fits-all mandate."
Proponents acknowledge that some restaurants are providing specific nutritional information. At Au Bon Pain restaurants, for instance, patrons can enter the names of their purchased items into computers, and obtain an estimate of the number of calories and carbohydrates as well as the fat content that each contains. In March, the NRA formed a partnership with 50,000 restaurant locations nationwide. Consumers can also use healthydiningfinder.com to access nutritional analysis of food items.
But some say these more detailed menus must be located where patrons can easily find them.
"If I had that much time to log on to a website and find all this information, I would just stay home and cook dinner," says Wootan. The CSPI did a study of McDonald's locations in Washington, D.C., and found that 40 percent of them had no nutritional information, and at the others, patrons had to ask an average of two to three people to find it.
"Someone always had to get it from the basement, or it was hidden behind the counter or posted by the restrooms," says Wootan.
Governor Schwarzenegger's office has not indicated whether he will sign the bill, but many experts say he is likely to do so. They cite his support to ban some junk foods from California's schools, his past chairmanship of the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness, and his position as coleader for The Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
If he approves the measure, the requirements would not take effect until January 2009.