Organizations and advocacy groups of the food service industry have presented their comments on the new federal menu-labeling regulations that were published by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this year. The new rules are part of a government health care reform provision, titled “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.” Interested parties and the general public were given 90 days to study the proposed provisions, seek clarifications and voice concerns.
Restaurant Menus Will Have to Display
Calorie Contents by the End of the Year
Spokespersons for the restaurant industry expressed uneasiness with regards to flexibility, timing and costs of the regulations, which they say will put a considerable burden on many businesses. “Our members strongly supported adoption of a national menu-labeling law,” said Scott Vinson, vice president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants. “However, we have grave concerns regarding certain […] interpretations of the legislation. We hope the FDA will carefully consider our comments and adjust the final regulations to be consistent with the statute.”
Food service is a highly complex and multifaceted industry and many restaurant operators worry that they will be forced to comply with a fixed set of rules that are impractical or inapplicable to them. “There are many different types of concepts, ranging from quick service to fine dining,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive of the National Restaurant Association. “We have outlined some ways we believe the regulations can be improved and strengthened, to better allow restaurants and foodservice outlets to most effectively display nutrition information.”
At least for a transitional period that is necessary to implement the required changes industry advocates want to see a “reasonable basis” as the standard of compliance, so that restaurant operators would not be punished right away for inevitable “variations” in the nutritional content of the foods they serve. Broader flexibility, they say, is needed to convey the extra information in ways that satisfy the needs of both customers and restaurant owners.
Once the law is in effect, the FDA intends to allow six months for full implementation, a time frame industry advocates say is way to short.
So, what exactly are the provisions of the new menu labeling laws? In essence, once the law passes, restaurant chains with 20 or more locations nationwide will have to post calorie values on menus and/or menu boards. The rules are very specific about how the information is to be displayed to make it sufficiently visible and intelligible for all customers. The same requirements will apply to five star restaurants, fast food joints, pizza parlors, coffee shops, cafeterias, convenience stores and every other business that uses more than 50 percent of total floor space for the sale of food.
Not affected are enterprises whose main purpose is not to sell food, like movie theaters, amusement parks, hotels and also airlines and trains. Also exempt from menu-labeling are custom orders from catering companies, specials and other items not routinely listed on standard menus, food that is part of a marketing test as well as condiments on the table, like ketchup, mustard etc.
Food items in self-service areas, such as buffets and other displays, must be labeled, either per item or per serving, at the place where they are offered.
Advertisements fall outside the scope of the labeling requirements. However, take-out and delivery menus do qualify and will be subject to the same rules as regular menus. Internet menus that allow customers to order online, over the phone or by fax must disclose the caloric contents of each item.
The FDA estimates that the final version of the new regulations will go into effect by the end of the year. More than 275,000 restaurants that are part of 1,640 chains nationwide will be affected.
To what extent consumers will benefit from the new regulations remains to be seen. Full disclosure of calorie content provides more information but not necessarily motivation to choose lighter fares or cut back on portion sizes. How effective all this will be in the fight against the obesity epidemic is anyone’s guess. Still, we should welcome all the help we can get.