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Adrian Cummins is the Chief Executive Officer, and Kristina Sheahan is the Communications Executive for the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI).

Calorie-count legislation, and what it means for the restaurant industry

Proposals to require restaurants, take-aways, and all food service outlets to post calorie details of all meals on menus were approved at the Government’s Cabinet in February of this year. The information must be provided at the point where the food is ordered, whether at tables or counters. Drafting of calorie-posting legislation has started, and should be ready for enactment in 2016.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland opposes proposals to display calories on menus. The RAI believe in education before legislation. Obesity is largely preventable and restaurants should not have to bear the brunt of the issue.

The introduction of calorie information on menus will have devastating effects on the restaurant industry, costing €5,000 to businesses, and may have a knock on effect in other sectors. The RAI urges the government to reconsider this bill in the interest of the restaurant industry and tourism. Such “nanny state proposals” are an unnecessary burden on restaurant owners, as the measures will be virtually impossible to monitor. The question can be asked: “How does the government propose that this will be monitored?” Will inspectors be paid to eat out in all of Ireland’s 22,000 food outlets to check if each menu has calorie counts on them? Any chef will tell you that menus in restaurants vary from day to day and therefore calorie counting would be highly inaccurate.

Calorie counts have already been introduced in the United States, with unfavourable results.  Five out of six customers paid no attention to the information, according to a study by New York University.1 Displaying calories on menus takes the enjoyment from dining out and stifles creativity. It is important to remember that a nutritious smoothie containing 200 calories is better for you than zero calories in a Diet Coke. It is the RAI’s position that this will destroy food tourism and creativity.

Calorie counting will also have an impact on chefs, with many of them opposed to it. Award-winning chef Oliver Dunne, of Bon Appetite, said it was “nonsense”, as chefs added ingredients as they cooked, so figures couldn’t be accurate. Michelin-starred chef Derry Clarke said he was one hundred percent against the move, which was “past ridiculous”.

Good nutritional choice is much more important than choices made simply on the basis of calorie counting. There should be more investment in education and teaching people to make better food choices for themselves. Supportive environments and communities are fundamental in shaping people’s choices.

At an individual level, people can increase their consumption of fruit and vegetables, limit the intake of sugars, and engage in regular physical activity. At a societal level, it’s important to support individuals who are trying to lose weight, make regular physical activity and healthier dietary patterns affordable and easily accessible to all—especially those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. The key to good health is a balanced and varied diet, with plenty of physical activity.

The promotion of healthy diets and physical activity in schools is vital to fight childhood obesity. Vending machines should be removed from schools. Both parents and children need to be taught how to make healthy lifestyle choices about diet—and also about physical activity. Children need to understand how daily physical activity fits into a healthy lifestyle. They also need to learn that all foods can fit into a healthy diet when moderation is practiced. Practice making healthy choices is essential. Schools should also ensure that the food they serve adheres to minimum nutritional standards.

It is not calories that are making us obese–it is sugar! Recent evidence suggests that by minimizing sugar intake, students can not only improve their health, but also boost their academic performance and development, and engage in habits that are healthy for their long-term lifestyle. Schools in Ireland have introduced healthy eating policies; for example, Ballapousta National School in Ardee, Co. Louth has a stated aim to help all those involved in the school community (children, staff, and parents) to develop positive and responsible attitudes to eating, and to appreciate the contribution that good food makes to a person’s overall health.

At a time when restaurants are trying to create new jobs as well as save existing ones, extra costs don’t need to be placed on them. We can ask, “How does the Department of Health suggest that we pay for this without having to pass on that cost to employees, reduce their hours or cut staff? It’s not easy for a business to cough up €5,000 in the morning.”

PAI will hold a conference on Food Regulation on 20 November 2015.