Question: When does a ground-beef taco salad with shredded Cheddar cheese in a deep-fried tortilla shell qualify as "Fresh 'n Light"?
Answer: Whenever a national Mexican restaurant chain calls it "Fresh 'n Light."
Restaurants have been exempt from rules governing health claims -- rules that the Food and Drug Administration revised this year to force manufacturers to label foods according to strict definitions (the revamped labels will appear next spring).
But last summer, the FDA reversed the exemption, and now the restaurant industry is wondering if 1994 will be the year for menu rewriting and backpedaling.
"They're trying to turn us into a can of peas!" grumbles Stephen Elmont, president of the National Restaurant Association, which represents 150,000 businesses. "A restaurant meal is a very different thing from mass-produced food . . . they are simply imposing on us regulations expressly written for supermarket products."
The FDA rules strictly define such words as "healthy," "light" and "low-fat." Those words are used in restaurants, of course, and when the FDA decided to leave menus alone it was sued by the Ralph Nader-affiliated organization Public Citizen, along with the nutrition-gadfly group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The FDA reversed the exemption, although FDA spokesman Brad Stone says only menus that make health or nutritional claims are affected.
Restaurants "will not be required to publish all nutritional information on menus, but should be able to produce lab analysis of menu items or evidence of a 'good-faith effort' to consult USDA food tables. . . ."
The restaurant association proposes a compromise approach requiring responsible use of terms such as "light" without nutrition breakdowns or reference to standard USDA-analyzed dishes.
Not everyone fears the rules: The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company decided that offering an FDA-defined healthy menu is a crucial customer service. A brigade of chefs and nutrition consultants gathered in Florida in July to produce a master book of 240 recipes from which chefs can choose in assembling menus -- but not deviate by one gram of fat.
The restaurant association contends that most of the nation's restaurants are small businesses that have neither the money nor the nutritional expertise to follow the Ritz-Carlton example.
"I won't put descriptors on my menu," says Mr. Elmont of his own Boston restaurant, Mirabelle. "If you pick your way through it, you'll find some food that's probably very good for you. But I won't make claims."
New regulations won't take effect before late 1994 at the earliest. A key unknown: Will strict rules cause restaurateurs to simply drop the idea of offering healthful options?
Says CSPI director of legal affairs Bruce Silverglade: "Restaurants may choose to stop putting health claims on their menus, but [if the claims are] being used as marketing gimmicks, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad result."