Yesterday, California became the first state in the Union to write into law menu labeling requirements. Like municipal ordinances recently enacted in New York City and Seattle, the California law requires certain “chain” restaurants to disclose nutritional information and calorie content information for certain items.

The law, to be phased in between 2009 and 2011, applies to restaurant chains with at least 20 locations that “offer for sale substantially the same menu items, or operates as a franchised outlet of a parent company . . . with the same name in the state that offer for sale substantially the same menu items.”

The new California law reads like a lawyer’s dream. Numerous exemptions are granted for certain grocery stores, “certified farmer’s markets” and others. Exemptions are also created to the exemptions. For example, “separately owned food facilities to which this section otherwise applies that are located in the grocery store” are not included in the “grocery store” exemption. To further add to the confusion, “grocery store” is defined to include convenience stores, though the law fails explain what that means. Does this mean that the law applies to a hamburger chain restaurant but not to the neighboring chain “convenience store” that sells the same hamburger but also a quart of milk? Does this make any sense? Won’t this statutue almost certainly generate significant litigation?

The labeling requirements apply to “standard menu items,” which are defined as “a food or beverage item offered for sale by a food facility through a menu, menu board, or display tag at least 180 days per calendar year . . . .” Yet a “standard menu item” does not include “a food item that is customized on a case-by-case basis in response to an unsolicited customer request.” What does "unsolicited customer request" mean? What about a sandwich shop that offers nearly infinite combinations of products? According to SUBWAY, “there are more than two million different sandwich combinations available" its menu.

Aside from being riddled with ambiguities, inconsistencies and impossible-to-interpret language, this blog has previously made the case that menu regulation should be the domain of uniform federal law and not inconsistent, piecemeal local ordinances. The California law is yet another argument in favor of federal preemption.

Section one of the California law cites national obesity statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the federal Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Nothing about this bill is specific to California. Because the law only applies to large restaurant chains, its impact is mostly on large national or regional companies. Ironically, the California legislature understood the problem of inconsistent regulation and chose to preempt all local and municipal regulation of restaurant menus. If menu regulation is an issue that needs regulation (and there are many good arguments why it does not), it should be taken up by Congress, the FDA and the USDA, not  states or local municipalities.