Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president and founder of Healthy Dining, a nutrition-related marketing and consulting firm, interviews Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, on menu labeling, sodium reduction, the New York City sugary beverage ban and other nutrition issues that affect the restaurant industry. This interview and others can be seen at Healthy Dining’s Restaurant Nutrition News & Insights.
When you started at the NRA [five years ago], you developed four major priority areas for the association, and more broadly, for the whole industry. One of those four priorities is 'Food and Healthy Living.' Share with us your vision on that.
We created a healthy living platform that not only helps contribute to a healthier America but also helps foster a healthy and thriving restaurant industry. Our vision is to create an environment that encourages voluntary, flexible options for restaurateurs to address today’s healthy living challenges — and to create a holistic approach that encompasses a multitude of solutions.
You also led the support for the menu labeling legislation that passed as part of the health care law in 2010. I know many in the industry are anxiously awaiting the FDA’s final rules on that. Do you have any inside skinny on when we can expect to hear more on that?
It’s possible we could hear from FDA before the end of the year. Once the final rules are issued, we expect the timeline for restaurants to comply will be six to 12 months.
So that sounds like restaurants will need to be ready for menu labeling in 2013. What do you see as the major benefits of menu labeling for the restaurant industry?
The National Restaurant Association, along with many of our chain member companies, advocated for a national, uniform standard for larger chain restaurants so customers could have access to consistent nutrition information whether they were in a restaurant in Portland, Ore., or Portland, Maine. With the different number of state and local initiatives, it made good business sense to have a national standard, as well as create a positive experience for consumers.
The First Lady, Michelle Obama, has championed the eradication of childhood obesity and has made amazing progress through the Let’s Move! initiative. And you personally have really championed the effort in the restaurant industry through the Kids LiveWell Program. Share your vision with us on Kids LiveWell.
Throughout my tenure with the Association, we had been looking for ways that we could highlight the industry’s progress on children’s nutrition and showcase restaurants’ healthful children’s offerings. We were pleased to collaborate with Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians to create the Kids LiveWell program to tell the industry’s positive story.
To join the program, restaurants agree to offer and promote a selection of items that meet qualifying criteria based on leading health organizations’ scientific recommendations, including the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines. The initiative focuses on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and limiting unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium.
Participating restaurant companies promote the menu items, and the items can also be found at HealthyDiningFinder.com and Healthy Dining’s mobile website. We also have a free Kids LiveWell app that makes it easy for parents to find healthful menu items nearest them. The app is available in the Android market and iTunes app store and can be downloaded at Restaurant.org/KidsLiveWell.
And the Kids LiveWell Program has really grown.
The industry response has been so gratifying. As you know, we launched the program in 2011 with 19 brands representing 15,000 restaurant locations. Today, we have more than 110 brands spanning 30,000 locations. These restaurants can be found in every state in the country and include everything from quick-service restaurants to fast-casual concepts, from the largest restaurant chains to independent operators.
Industry critics have called for regulations to “reduce restaurant consumption.” Whenever I hear those proposals, I am disappointed because there has been so much excitement and interest in the restaurant industry for Kids LiveWell and the Healthy Dining Program. Both of these programs have grown tremendously. Do you think there is a need for government intervention?
The industry continues to ‘step up to the plate’ on its own and offer a growing selection of menu choices for all the different reasons consumers choose to dine out. We believe an environment that encourages voluntary, flexible options is the most effective path forward.
And how about the sugary beverages? What can the industry do to provide at least a 'let’s meet halfway' solution that will satisfy the expectations of health advocacy groups?
The restaurant industry is committed to its proactive role in addressing obesity; however, initiatives such as the New York City beverage ban are misguided and, we believe, ultimately ineffective. According to the CDC, the majority of people purchase their sugary drinks from convenience and grocery stores, which are excluded from the ban. Instead of demonizing sugar-sweetened beverages in restaurants and foodservice establishments in an attempt to reverse the obesity epidemic, we collectively must focus on policies and practices where there is evidence to indicate there will be a behavioral change in consumers that leads to positive health outcomes.
Reducing sodium is also a hot topic in the industry. Healthy Dining’s dietitians are working with quite a few restaurants to help them develop short-term and long-term strategies to decrease sodium content without compromising the flavor and guest acceptance. What are your thoughts on the importance of the industry as a whole working to reduce sodium?
We know that a high sodium diet negatively impacts blood pressure. According to the CDC, about one in three U.S. adults — an estimated 68 million people — has high blood pressure. Public health advocates have encouraged the industry to assist in reducing sodium in the American diet. We are working with our members to voluntarily reduce sodium in certain menu items over time. We feel the best approach to reducing sodium encourages voluntary, gradual reductions along with flexible options that meet the needs and requests of consumers.