As restaurant chains operating in King County, Washington are readying to comply with the new menu labeling law, serious questions arise. Does each menu item have to be sent to an expensive lab for testing? How accurate does the nutritional information need to be? How does a restaurant account for the inevitable variables of made-to-order meal preparation (an extra tablespoon of cooking oil can add 120 calories to a dish)?  Does a restaurant that complies with the King County law open itself to consumer labeling claims because its nutritional information cannot be 100 percent accurate?

According to the Seattle Post Intelligencer (“PI”), the question concerning the tools that can be used by a restuarant  chain to determine nutritional information may have been resolved in King County. The article reports that restaurant chains in King County have been given authority to “use nutritional software to calculate what was in each menu item rather than the pricey proposition of sending every dish off to a laboratory.”

What is not clear are what protections against consumer protection/tort liability a restaurant may have for “the natural variations that come with cooking restaurant food” or the variability between laboratory analysis and nutritional software. As one restaurateur said, “If you’re working by hand and making pasta, putting in cream and tossing in things as you go, it’s probably fairly close, but there are going to be variances because it’s not prepackaged . . . . Even if you’re cutting a meatloaf, if the specifications [sic] on the meatloaf is 12 ounces and (instead) cuts 13 ounces, it’s going to be off by 6 to 8 percent.”

Legal liability from variables in restaurant cooking is “not a theoretical fear.” As pointed out by the PI, “Applebee’s is facing a $5 million lawsuit over just that issue, after an independent lab found more calories and fat in a menu item than the chain’s nutritional information claimed.” One of the complaints filed against Applebee’s was by a person from the Seattle area.

Serious hurdles exist for any plaintiff’s attorney to prove liability and damages or certify as a class a nutritional labeling case against a restaurant:

1.  Menu labeling suits are based on the theory that the nutritional information disclosed was 80, 90 or even 95 percent accurate and not 100 percent accurate. Does a reasonable consumer really believe that nutritional labeling of restaurant menu items has no room for error? Given the inherent and obvious variabilities involved, isn’t 80, 90 or 95 percent accuracy for nutritional information reasonable?

 2. Even more significant, how does a plaintiff prove causation? Obesity, heart disease and other medical problems are complex medical problems. Even the medical community does not agree on causes of obesity. Surely, obesity , diabetes, and heart problems can’t stem from a single meal or even a series of meals from just one restaurant that was 5 percent off in its estimate of nutritional information.

3. Even if liability can be established, class certification seems dubious. How can issues of liability or damages, which by definition vary with each person, ever be considered “common” or “typical” among a vast group of customers sufficient to justify class certification?

As we have seen over and over again in recent legal history, none of these barriers will deter every lawyer. The potential recovery and the targets (i.e. large restaurant chains) are too big not to try. Already, multiple putative class actions have been filed against Applebee’s.

Practically, several things should happen to protect restaurants doing their best to disclose nutritional information to their customers. First, restaurants should be advised to make sure their customers appreciate the variabilities and room for error in their nutritional information. The better a restaurant can prove that a plaintiff was not reasonable in reliance on 100 percent accuracy, the better its chance of having the plaintiff’s claims dismissed.

Second, there should be a legislative solution. The state legislature should exempt from the state consumer protection statute claims for nutritional labeling that meet an accepted standard. Why should restaurants that make their best efforts to disclose nutritional information to their customers be penalized? Without legislation, tort law and consumer protection statutes have the perverse effect of discouraging restaurants from providing disclosures to their customers.