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Rather than providing hot, nutritious meals, students at many American schools are offered a menu of vending machine items, including candy bars, chips, ice cream novelties and pop. Students with a bigger appetite can order pizza, hotdogs and hamburgers from local fast food outlets. The school seems to be a vegetable- and fruit-free zone. Such so-called lunch programs flout numerous studies showing the grave health effects and social consequences to youngsters who eat excessive amounts of fat and junk foods. But there may be a way to reduce the nation’s cravings for these unsavory edibles: post health warnings on fast-food meals, overly processed foods and other unhealthy snacks. The concept of warning the public about the health consequences of ingesting harmful products is not new. The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 required each pack of cigarettes sold in the United States to bear a health warning. The act was passed in response to the landmark 1964 surgeon general report disclosing evidence that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and chronic bronchitis. In 1984, Congress passed legislation requiring cigarette makers to post rotating health warnings on advertisements and cigarette packages. Similar warnings are required for smokeless tobacco and cigars. Alcoholic beverages also include health warnings. So why not food? Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, or NLEA, to broaden the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate the food industry by creating a uniform system for labeling the nutrition information on packaged food. A congressional report on the history of the act noted that NLEA was needed to better inform the public about nutrition and to prevent food companies from making unsubstantiated health claims. Restaurants were by and large exempt from NLEA. Given the growing evidence about the health risks associated with a fast food diet, especially among children, Congress should amend the NLEA so the public will be better informed of the risks associated with unhealthy diets. Congress need only to look at the paradigm established through legislation requiring health warnings for cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol. Similar warnings should be placed on snacks and fast-food meals, educating customers about the consequences of high-caloric and fatty diets, especially among kids. For example, a bag of barbeque potato chips may warn its nibblers that obesity is closely linked to type-2 diabetes. A sack of cheese puffs may caution that overweight children grow into overweight adults. Such a program would be easier to administer than many people might imagine. In 1995, the Food and Drug Administration published a question-and-answer guide that sets out the parameters of NLEA, such as which food products must be labeled and whether particular food-serving establishments are exempt. This document provides a useful manual for legislators on how to establish health warnings for junk food. It also should assuage the concerns of retailers and small business owners who may fret that such labeling requirements would hurt business and be expensive to implement. The biggest culprits in the battle against the bulge are the nationwide fast-food chains and the giant snack companies. Provisions requiring food manufacturers to warn about the health effects of junk food would need to target these offenders. This would force the companies to provide healthier fare and also spread the message about the importance of having a healthy diet to the target audience. Regulations regarding the postings would be modeled after existing NLEA regulations that require that the nutrition information be “readily accessible to consumers.” This means that the warning needs to be listed on the label attached to the food or at the point of purchase. One obvious place to list the warnings would be on menus, so consumers might actually take the information into account when they order. Mom-and-pop establishments and smaller retailers should not have to worry about the burdensome effect of labeling requirements as NLEA already exempts smaller operations. Placing health warnings on fast foods, likely to be ignored by children, will not solve the nation’s obesity problem overnight. But the notices may get the attention of parents, doctors, educators and others who influence childrens’ diets. Food labeling is one step that could lead to a change in attitudes and eating habits. When it comes to planning students’ lunch menus, it may even bring wayward schools back to their senses. Lawrence Shulruff is a partner in Chicago’s Sudekum, Cassidy & Shulruff.

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