Liz Kniss was sitting in the crowded East Room of the White House, waiting to witness President Barack Obama sign the historic health reform bill. Suddenly, she saw something astonishing flash on a video screen: Among the various provisions of the new law was the requirement that chain restaurants list nutritional information on their menus.
This was news to Kniss, a champion of menu labeling as a Santa Clara County supervisor.
"I couldn't believe it," she recalled Tuesday, speaking of that memorable day -- March 23, 2010. "To think that something we did in our county with eight restaurants has ended up affecting the entire United States? I said, 'You gotta be kidding!' "
This week, California's 2008 menu-labeling law takes effect. Restaurants with more than 20 outlets in the state must include calorie counts for items on menus. But with the federal law going in effect later this year, local enforcement has been put on hold. The state law will become a footnote in a grass-roots effort in which Kniss was an early advocate.
Starting a food fight
In 2007, when the obesity epidemic became national news, she began pushing for a county law forcing fast food restaurants to tell us how many calories were in that double cheeseburger and fries. At the time, only New York City and Seattle had such laws. A statewide menu-labeling law had passed the Legislature, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it under pressure from restaurant interests.
Kniss' proposal sparked a local food fight. Health advocates saw it as a weapon against obesity. Restaurants saw it as a big ol' belly ache. Some diners complained that they didn't want to know how many calories were in a super cheesy burrito. When it comes to enjoying a restaurant meal, they said, ignorance is bliss.
I didn't see what the fuss was, considering the law would affect only a handful of chain restaurants in unincorporated areas.
But Kniss persisted. "This isn't about punishing somebody for the choices they made," she says now. "It is about helping people make choices."
The ordinance passed in June 2008, three months after San Francisco passed a labeling law.
The movement grows
That's when restaurant chains saw even worse indigestion ahead: a patchwork of ordinances throughout California, each with slightly different rules. The next time the Legislature passed a statewide labeling law, in October 2008, the governor signed it.
The law required chain restaurants to publish nutritional information, and gave them until Jan. 1 of this year to post calorie counts on the menu.
However, by then, other states followed our lead. The National Restaurant Association decided it would prefer one set of federal regulations to 50 different state laws, so it quietly pushed for labeling to be folded into health care reform. With all the big issues in the bill, not even the tea party took notice of the labeling law. So when Kniss was invited to the White House signing ceremony as a member of the health care committee for the National Association of Counties, she had no idea that labeling was on the menu.
"I literally saw it run across the bottom of the screen and said, 'Is this true?' "
After all this time, that moment still melts in her mouth like a chocolate truffle. "This may sound small-town of me," she said, "but I don't know that we would have that law today without our little county."
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