The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has admitted for the first time that menu labelling for restaurants could be made compulsory if its voluntary scheme does not achieve a high enough level of take-up.
The FSA launched the voluntary menu labelling trial, which includes listing calories, in April after research revealed that consumers were in favour of seeing more nutritional information on menus.
At the time, chief executive Tim Smith stressed that compulsion was "something that has not entered my mind".
However, after large US chain restaurants last week agreed to support legislation that would require them to disclose calories on their menus, the agency said a similar step could be taken here.
"Legislation could be an option further down the line if companies don't make progress in this area, but we are confident that working in voluntary partnership with the catering industry can be effective," an FSA spokesman said.
"We will be working as closely as possible with all sectors of industry to explore options for providing nutrition information that is easy for consumers to act on and practical for businesses to use."
So far, 18 restaurants and caterers have committed to taking part in the FSA trial, including Burger King, Compass Group, KFC, Mitchells & Butlers, Pizza Hut, Pret a Manger, Sodexo, Subway and Wimpy.
Under the proposed US legislation, chain restaurants with more than 20 outlets would have to list the calorie content of each item and would also have to make available upon request other nutritional information such as fat, sugar and salt content.
The move has been backed by the National Restaurant Association, which represents more than 380,000 US restaurants. It comes after California became the first US state to force fast food restaurants to list calorie content on their menus last year, with similar measures also introduced in New York City.
By Kerstin Kühn
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