Chain restaurants across the nation will be required to post calorie counts on their menus for each item that they serve, under legislation approved Sunday.
The new rules, passed by the House as part of the huge healthcare reform package and sent to President Obama to sign into law, were lauded by nutrition advocates as well as the restaurant industry.
"People will be able to see that the order of chili cheese fries they are considering will be 3,000 calories," said nutrition advocate Margo Wootan, who helped write the bill.
Several states, including California, already have laws requiring food establishments to post nutritional information at tables or on menus.
But this week's action goes beyond the Golden State's rules. It also would require calorie counts from vending machines, buffets, alcoholic drink menus and drive-through restaurants.
The federal law would also apply to restaurant chains that just have a few outlets here, as long as they have 20 or more locations with the same name nationwide. Under existing state law, the rules don't kick in unless a chain has at least 20 locations in California alone.
"More restaurants in California could be required to post nutritional information under the federal law," said Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Assn. "They could have one unit in the state but 19 others across the country and have to post it here."
Both the state group and its Washington, D.C., counterpart, the National Restaurant Assn., supported the federal labeling law because it would create a single national standard. The legislation would preempt local and state laws.
Until now, cities, counties and states were each able to develop their own rules -- and many already have them in place.
"This legislation will replace a growing patchwork of varying state and local regulations with one consistent national standard that helps consumers make choices that are best for themselves and their families," said Dawn Sweeney, chief executive of the National Restaurant Assn.
In addition to putting calorie counts on menus, the new law would require restaurants to provide consumers with other nutritional information, including the amount of sodium, carbohydrates, fiber and protein in each standard serving of their food.
The bill was written to conform with existing law for labeling packaged food sold in grocery stores and other places, and once signed by Obama -- which is expected to happen Tuesday -- it will become part of that body of law. Specific rules about the labeling, including the font size to be used on menus and signs, will be worked out by the Food and Drug Administration.
Some portions of the law will go into effect immediately. Experts estimated that it could take up to two years before the menu guidelines are issued.