LAS VEGAS — The list of ailments being blamed on the restaurant industry is a growing one that includes hyperactivity in kids, obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart problems and more.
As a result, the industry is dealing with more regulation than in the past, most recently with passage of the LEAN Act, included in health care reform legislation. The act requires restaurants to post nutrition information on menus nationwide.
A number of cities, regions and states already have passed or are in the process of passing similar requirements. The lack of uniformity was getting expensive, said Kim Eifler, director of purchasing for Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Inc., owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants.

Restaurants wants produce industry's help“Sodium is going to be our big thing. There is no reason someone eating healthfully can’t eat at our restaurants. What we don’t want to do is have our entire menu to go all healthful options..."

- Kim Eifler, Darden

To work with the new standards and regulations, the foodservice industry is seeking help from the produce industry to make produce more appealing, and put produce at the center of the plate, Eifler said.

The need for uniformity across the nation is one of the reasons Darden sponsored and supported the LEAN Act. It had already been through trans fat bans of a few years ago, and realized that the foodservice and retail industries work differently when it comes to labeling nutritional information.

“Retail could do it because of the serving size,” Eifler said. “At retail, all they had to do was label, and they could still use partially hydrogenated oil.”

A small amount of trans fat can be reported as none, which is why retail products were able to comply quickly with zero trans fat rules. For restaurants, which provide nutritional information by the dish and not by serving size, that was not an option.

And speaking of nutrition, the restaurant industry is also watching closely and staying involved in first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.

“Michelle Obama’s initiative is not about making kids get skinny — it’s about teaching kids how to eat,” Eifler said.

Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy meal has more calories and saturated fat than the recommended daily allowance, but the restaurant industry defends high-calorie meals because consumers should be able to balance indulgent meals with lighter meals.

The biggest issues on restaurant operators’ plates now include sodium reduction, childhood obesity, allergens and additive bans, Eifler said.

The Institute of Medicine released a report on sodium April 20, recommending new federal standards. The report does say manufacturers and restaurants need time to meet these standards, so the goal should be accomplished slowly, and should be unnoticeable to consumers’ taste.

“Sodium is going to be our big thing,” Eifler said. “There is no reason someone eating healthfully can’t eat at our restaurants. What we don’t want to do is have our entire menu to go all healthful options because sales would (drop).”

Eifler said restaurants are seeking ways to meet nutrition goals without sacrificing flavor. One idea for children, she said, is a hand-held menu wheel that allows them to choose an entrée; side dishes are recommended based on the healthfulness of the entrée.

“So they can pick chicken fingers, but what won’t come up then? Fries. You can get broccoli, asparagus or apple slices,” Eifler said.