Restaurants, takeaways and work canteens will be urged to advertise how many calories are in each item on their menus, under an initiative launched on Thursday by the Food Standards Agency.
The FSA wants to introduce consistent nutritional information for people eating out, similar to the information on packages bought to be consumed at home, starting with calorie content.
Rosemary Hignett, FSA head of nutrition, said “half a dozen” big companies in the catering and restaurant industry have signed up to be “early adopters”, although their names have not been released. The agency is looking to recruit many more by the time the voluntary scheme goes live in the summer.
But the British Hospitality Association was unenthusiastic. John Dyson, its food and technical affairs adviser, said: “We see this as an additional cost for restaurants – and especially for small businesses trying to gather accurate calorie information. There is no evidence that we need this scheme during a recession or that consumers want it.”
Tim Smith, FSA chief executive, said the initiative had not been costed, although he maintained that “providing this information is unlikely to be a significant cost compared to other costs in the industry”.
The model for the FSA initiative is a law passed by New York City’s Board of Health in April last year. This compels any restaurant that is part of a chain with more than 15 outlets anywhere in the US to post calories on the menu. It affects about a third of the meals eaten out in New York.
“It seems that in the New York scheme the calories consumed have gone down by 50 to 100 calories per choice,” Mr Smith said.
The FSA launched the calorie labelling initiative after extensive consumer testing, said Ms Hignett. She added people preferred clear, consistent and simple labelling – which was why the scheme just focused on calories in menus. Further information, for example about fat and salt content, would be provided in leaflets or on websites.
The ultimate aim of the initiative is to contribute to the government’s wide-ranging programme to fight rising levels of obesity.