With the heated–and at times downright uncivil–political debate over health care reform in Washington, discussion over some of the finer details buried in the 2,500-page health care bill President Obama signed into law yesterday have been drowned out.  Among them is a new requirement for all major restaurant chains to post calorie information prominently on their menus.

The health bill contains language that requires calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, menu boards, and drive through boards, as well as vending machines. The requirements apply to all chains with 20 or more outlets.

Calorie labeling laws have been popping up in states and localities all across the nation, from King County in Washington state to New York City, in response to alarming obesity rates. The health bill takes a similar approach as some of the local statutes, but creates one national requirement.

The language is based on the MEAL Act, a bill that had been previously introduced by Senator Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration. The bill was first introduced in 2003.

“For nearly 20 years, consumers have benefited from nutrition labels on packaged foods, but have remained in the dark about the nutritional quality of their restaurant meals,” said Sen. Harkin in a statement after the bill was signed into law yesterday.  “The passage of menu labeling closes this glaring loophole, giving consumers the information that they need to take control of their own health.”

“I am delighted that menu labeling has been included in the historic health care reform legislation that President Obama signed into law today,” said Rep. DeLauro said. “Americans will now be able to make more informed choices about the food they are eating, and with childhood obesity rates tripling over the last 30 years, this legislation is imperative to the health of our nation.”

The National Restaurant Association also responded favorably to the new requirements. 

“The passage of this provision is a win for consumers and restaurateurs,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.

“We know the importance of providing consumers with the information they want and need, no matter in which part of the country they are dining,” said Sweeney. “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.”

Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), also praised the action.

“Congress is giving Americans easy access to the most critical piece of nutrition information they need when eating out,” said Wootan in a statement. “While it’s a huge victory for consumers, it’s just one of dozens of things we will need to do to reduce rates of obesity and diet-related disease in this country.”

According to CSPI, the bill exempts small businesses, and does not apply to daily or temporary specials and customized orders and it asks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to propose specific regulations not later than one year from now. Those regulations will be finalized through a formal rulemaking process, and the FDA must report its progress to Congress.

With a lengthy rulemaking process ahead, it could be a while before every Starbucks must prominently display the fact that your Grande Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino contains 510 calories.