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Linda Chalat
Linda Chalat
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Pizza Chains – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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When I think break-the-diet indulgence, I think big, hot pizza! And like many consumers, I occasionally wonder “how bad is this stuff?” But if the national pizza chains have their way, we may never know.

Congress requires menu labeling as part of the health-care reform law enacted in 2010, and the FDA is working on the implementation. The purpose of the new labeling is to combat obesity by helping consumers make informed choices when they eat out. Americans consume one-third of their calories from foods prepared outside the home. And not surprisingly, many studies show that calorie intake is higher when people dine out.

Under the FDA's proposal, food chains with at least 20 locations must disclose calories on menus and menu boards. Sodium, fat content and other nutritional information would have to be made available upon request. Although this kind of information is disclosed on labels of packaged foods, it is not widely available in restaurants and other food outlets except in scattered localities (such as New York City) and a few states, including California.

The FDA proposal calls for posting a calorie range for foods that can be customized. But such ranges can be so wide for pizza that they're useless, the pizza makers said. It makes more sense for customers to use online tools, such as Domino's Cal-O-Meter, which enables people to plug in what they're eating and get the calorie count. According to Domino's, there are 34 million ways to customize it, depending on toppings and crust and size. And the FDA would require that a menu board display the calorie count for the entire pizza even though the average consumer eats only 2.1 slices, an industry group said.

However, under the plan, the pizza chains would only need to list calories for the items they choose to present on their menu boards, not every possible pizza combination.

In 2009, researchers at the Stanford University School of Business analyzed purchases at more than 200 Starbucks stores in the city and found that calorie postings led to a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction. Most of the drop was tied to customer food purchases, with little effect on drink purchases.

New York City, which adopted menu labeling in 2008, did its own study of purchases at about 170 of the city's top fast food chains and found that one in six customers used the calorie information. Those who did bought about 100 fewer calories than customers who did not see or use it.

But the American Pizza Community, created in January, says the rules as written are unfair. This new industry organization of pizza chains, including Domino's, Papa John's, Little Caesars, Godfather's Pizza and Pizza Hut, argues that the government's plan forces store owners to pay for in-store menu boards that most of their customers don't see before ordering. The American Pizza Community, as the coalition is called, says 90 percent of their orders are placed online and over the phone.