Two hours after I pitched the local, less heavy-handed version of this story to my editors, Reuters posted a story about a consumer group that doubles as the food police calling upon local, state and national governments to make restaurants list nutritional data on their menus.
"Restaurants have launched into a whole new era of extreme eating," the executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest said. "If we're going to deal with the epidemic of obesity and the tremendous prevalence of heart attacks and strokes, we're going to have to do something about restaurant foods."
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is already on the controversial case.
Rather than force restaurants to play along healthfully, TPCHD is recruiting volunteer restaurants to print nutrition information for every dish on their menus. TPCHD will pay for the computerized nutrition analysis. The restaurants will list total calories, fat, sodium and carbs/sugars on their menus -- right along side "cooked to perfection" claims and prices.
"We want to do this because two-thirds of our population in Pierce County is either obese or overweight," said Rick Porso, who is overseeing TPCHD's restaurant menu nutrition information program. "We continue to see this rise in diabetes. It's really somewhat out of control at this point. We know people dine out a lot. We can help people make a more informed choice."
Porso said the free program is just getting started. Nutrition analysis is back-logged, he said, and no restaurants have yet printed nutrition information on their menus. Porso said the program is open to any of the 2,000 restaurants in Pierce County. He said about 20 restaurants already have expressed interest, including Doyle's, Fife City Bar & Grill, GoodFella's Steak House, Tanaka Take-Out and Tides Tavern.
"They are the smaller, local establishments," Porso said. "The chains already have the information."
The chains just aren't as eager to share nutrition information with customers.
"Even when they do share it, it's not that easy to find," Porso said. "Like you can go to a Burger King. They usually have a poster on the wall on the way to the bathroom."
For participating restaurants, there is one big commitment.
"This whole process really requires a standardization of recipes," Porso said. "So for the mom-and-pop-type establishments that want to volunteer to do this, we really need to depend on them to go through that process of standardizing so it doesn't matter who the cook is -- they're going to add the same amount of salt, etc."
Restaurants that want to print nutrition information on their menus can contact Rick Porso at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department at 253-798-6417.
Porso said incentives may include advertisements in the News Tribune (on the county's tab) and plaques in participating restaurants.
Porso said the county may outsource nutrition analysis of restaurants' recipes in order to ensure that proprietary information is kept off the public record.
TPCHD is participating, along with MultiCare and others, in Get Fit Dining Out, in which local restaurants offer healthful specials throughout March.
I'll post more about Get Fit Dining Out later this week.
Keep an eye out on the front page of the News Tribune for my story on Pierce County's menu nutrition-info initiative.
In the meantime, tell me how you feel about these initiatives and dining/health information in general.