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Federal menu labeling rules set standards

FDA publishes long-awaited menu labeling requirements for the foodservice industry.

SHAPE February 2015

After a more than four-year-long development period, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has published its final regulations for menu labeling in the foodservice industry.

Scheduled to take effect in December, 2015, the law requires chain restaurants and similar retail food operations with 20 or more locations to provide consumers with nutritional information about the food items they offer by posting them on menus and menu boards. In addition, the FDA has established requirements for providing calorie information for food sold from certain vending machines.

“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home, and people today expect clear information about the products they consume,” FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in a press statement. “Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”

The federal menu labeling law was passed in 2010 as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This law supersedes menu labeling rules enacted previously by states or local jurisdictions that apply to those chains with 20 or more outlets.

Joan McGlockton, vice president of food policy and industry affairs of the National Restaurant Association, says the federal standard replaces a patchwork of confusing state and local requirements, which were becoming unmanageable for multi-unit restaurant chains. Areas that previously had passed their own nutrition disclosure laws include Philadelphia, California, New York, Westchester County, N.Y., and King County, Wash.

According to the FDA, the final federal rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, conducting business under the same name and offering substantially the same menu items. Those operations covered by the law must clearly and conspicuously display calorie information for standard items on menus, menu boards and drive-thru displays adjacent to the name or price of the item. That includes self-service, buffet and cafeteria lines.

In states or local jurisdictions that already have enacted their own regulations encompassing smaller chains operating between five and 19 locations, those operations are stilll subject to local laws unless they choose to opt into the federal requirement, McGlockton says.

The regulations also govern restaurant-style food offered at convenience and grocery stores as well as at food facilities in entertainment venue chains including movie theaters and amusement parks.

Seasonal menu items offered as temporary selections, daily specials and condiments for general use usually available on a counter or table are exempt from the labeling requirements.

Restaurants with fewer than 20 locations can comply voluntarily.

The NRA estimates the new rules will affect more than 200,000 restaurants nationwide.

“We believe that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers,” says Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive of the NRA.

“From Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, diners in restaurants will have a new tool to help them make choices that are right for them.”

In response to comments from stakeholders and consumers during the development period, the FDA says it narrowed the scope of foods covered by the rule to more clearly focus on restaurant-type food, and made other adjustments such as ensuring the flexibility for multi-serving dishes like pizza, which is labeled by the slice rather than as a whole pie.

Calories for combination meals also must be posted as well as for beverages, which include some alcoholic drinks.

The final menu labeling rules also require covered establishments to provide, upon consumer request and as noted on menus and menu boards, written nutrition information about total calories, total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars and protein.

To help consumers understand the significance of the calorie information in the context of a total daily diet, menus and menu boards must include the statement: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”

Participating chains must comply by Dec. 1, 2015. Originally, the FDA had suggested a six-month timeframe, but the NRA contended that the challenges and costs associated with creating new menus and menu boards would be onerous for chain operators. The one-year implementation period is expected to help restaurants comply with the added burden. A number of chains — including McDonald's, Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill — already have complied, McGlockton says. “Even when it's not required, some chains have made the effort to put it on their menus,” she notes.

The NRA says the menu labeling law requires restaurants to have a “reasonable basis” to substantiate their nutrition data, such as nutrient databases, nutrition facts labels, laboratory analysis and other means. The NRA argued in favor of this standard, rather than holding restaurants to a standard used for packaged foods produced in a food-processing facility.

The vending machine final rule requires operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines to disclose calorie information for food sold from vending machines, subject to certain exceptions. Vending machine operators will have two years to comply with the requirements.

While acknowledging that menu labeling can add cost and entail additional labor — particularly when it comes to developing calorie counts for selections and redesigning menus and menu boards — McGlockton calls it a positive step for the restaurant industry. “Consumers today are asking for more information — they want to know more about food and sourcing,” she says. “Transparency is a big trend, and this is another piece of that discussion. People are more attuned to health issues.”

Menu labeling also allows the industry to focus more on nutrition and where there may be opportunity to serve more nutritious food, she says. “In the past menu design was driven by culinary [concerns] and nutrition was an after-thought. Now more restaurants are engaging dietitians in the actual menu development”

[The restaurant industry] is a community that is responsive to consumers,” McGlockton says, “and we believe consumers want this information. We are amenable to giving them what they want.”

For more information on the FDA's final menu labeling regulations, see



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