Fast food restaurants in New York are now required to publish the calorie content of their meals after a court rejected their appeal to suspend this measure.
From now on, fast food chains that have more than 15 restaurants nationwide, including MacDonald's, Domino's pizzas and TGI Friday's, will have to clearly display how many calories are in their meals served across the city.
The move by city health officials, backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been in the pipeline for nearly two years as part of the fight against obesity, which affected about 1.5 million people here in 2004.
Certain firms, including Starbucks, have already begun posting the calorie content of their meals on their packaging, but others, including McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, were more reluctant.
They and other restaurants are challenging the calorie order under the first amendment to the US constitution, which guarantees free speech and expression, and the clause which says the constitution overrides local laws.
At a federal district appeals court Tuesday in New York, the restaurants, represented by the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), argued for a temporary suspension in the order to allow them to prepare their legal case.
The court at first agreed to a suspension, before reversing its position a few hours later. It rejected the NYSRA case, although it did delay the date from which restaurants can be fined for non-compliance from June 6 to July 18.
The three judges were divided on the issue, which may explain the U-turn.
"I don't see a big difference between the calories warnings on the meals and the warnings on the cigarettes packs," said Judge Rosemary Pooler, noting that people continue to smoke.
Another of the judges, Chester Straub, was more conciliatory, saying: "Why doesn't the city agree with a stay? You've waited for years, what is the immediacy? One more bag of French fries will not make the difference."
But the lawyer for New York authorities, Fay Ng, argued that "one calorie less everyday does make the difference."
"Ten million meals are served in New York each month. We represent New York City. We have an important public health decision here. The interest of the Board of Health is to implement it," she said.
In 2004, medical studies showed that 21.7 percent of the population of New York was obese -- a 70 percent spike in 10 years.
Major fast food chains represent more than a third of all meals served in the city, and on average, their meals exceed by 300 calories -- or sometimes double -- the 750 calories per meal recommended by nutritionists, studies say.
In September, Bloomberg defended New York's health authorities and said the city had an obligation to tell people how to live better.
Tuesday's ruling puts an end to weeks of delays in the introduction of the order, which was due to come into effect on April 1.
But it does not draw a line under the affair, as the restaurant owners still have to make their case, which could take months.