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Breaking down nutrition labeling

SHAPE July 2016

New rules on menu labels, nutrition facts, GMOs and sodium are designed to help consumers - here's what you need to know.

As the movement toward ingredient transparency and “clean labels” gains steam across the food and foodservice industries, lawmakers are seeking to address the issues by enacting regulations that proponents feel will enable consumers to make more informed dietary choices.

Among other actions, lawmakers at the federal, state and municipal levels have introduced policies that would require the displaying of caloric information on restaurant menus,  identification of food products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs),  calling for the posting of voluntary guidelines for sodium consumption, and  revamping the nutrition facts panel on retail food products.

This desire to provide more  ingredient related information is being fueled in part by concerns about the health of the population and rising health care costs, says Nancy Farrell, of Farrell Dietitian Services and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For example, Farrell says “In the U.S. about 35 percent of adults are now obese. This costs the country billions of extra dollars for health care.”   

In addition, she says, “Research is indicating that obesity is reversing the steady increase of the life span of Americans .... So in other words, as compared to previous time periods, more Americans are not necessarily living to their full potential due to obesity-related diseases.”

While the individual regulations will not impact foodservice operators equally, they nevertheless are expected to have an effect on the restaurant community.

“Regulations are shaping the food and nutrition policy landscape in significant ways,” says Cicely Simpson, the National Restaurant Association's executive vice president of government affairs and policy.  “While the nutrition facts panel and GMO labeling affect our industry differently than menu labeling and sodium, we are working with our members to assess impact on the industry.”

“We supported the menu labeling law and believe consumers want choices and options in restaurants,” Simpson continues. “Our industry is different than other segments of the food and beverage industry, so our approach to sodium and GMO labeling must reflect the unique nature of our industry.”

Meanwhile, experts agree that foodservice operators need to remain mindful of any related regulatory issues that may emerge.

Menu Labeling
After a years-long development period, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set May 5, 2017, as the date federal menu labeling regulations will take effect. As of that date foodservice businesses with 20 or more locations nationwide and operating under the same name must post calorie information for standard items on menus and menu boards. The final menu-labeling rules also require that such establishments provide upon consumer request written nutrition information about total calories, total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars and protein.

The federal regulations — which are a part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — have the support of many in the industry who maintain they preempt state and local menu labeling rules and limit restaurant liability. “The NRA has long advocated for a uniform federal menu-labeling standard and strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information that empowers consumers to make the best choices for their dietary needs,” the association has said.

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

Voluntary Guidelines for Sodium
Sodium has long been recognized as being an essential part of our diet. But experts say Americans tend to consume more of the mineral than is good for them. The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of salt a day — about 50 percent more than the 2,300 milligrams the federal government recommends — raising the risk of high blood pressure, which can increase the incidence of heart disease and stroke.

As a result, the FDA has proposed voluntary guidelines in draft form that establish targets for the gradual reduction of sodium in most processed and prepared foods. The reduction would come in two phases — cutting sodium over two years and over 10 years. If the food industry adjusts sodium levels based on the FDA’s proposed targets, the agency says it expects average per person consumption will drop to 3,000 milligrams a day in two years and to 2,300 in 10 years.

“Though the FDA recommendations are only a suggestion, this could be the first step towards potential FDA guidelines or future regulations,” says Ava Henderson, public policy director for Align Public Strategies in Orlando, Fla.

While the FDA is investigating voluntary guidelines, the city of New York has taken the sodium issue a step further. Restaurants with 15 or more locations now are required to post a symbol of a salt shaker next to menu items containing 2,300 or more milligrams of sodium, Henderson says. In addition to the symbols, restaurants must post a required warning about excessive salt consumption or they will be fined $200 for noncompliance. Repeat offenders may even lose their permit.

Nutrition Facts Panel Update
In what represents the first major revision since 1993, the FDA this year finalized the new Nutrition Facts panel for retail and packaged goods, updating the panel to incorporate new nutritional information and changes in the way Americans eat and drink.

The FDA has revised the label to emphasize total calories, added sugars and such nutrients as potassium and vitamin D.

The agency also adjusted the serving size of some foods and beverages to align more closely with current consumption trends. The FDA says it expects 17 percent of serving sizes will be changed.

Manufacturers will need to introduce the new label by July 26, 2018. However, manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply.

Although the revised Nutrition Facts panel is likely to have little direct influence on the way foodservice operators conduct business, they are expected to contribute to a more nutritionally engaged consumer — who will expect to find an increased amount of information pertaining to their dietary concerns. “The more information people have, the better and more informed decisions they can make,” the Academy's Farrell says.

GMO Labeling
One week before a Vermont law took effect mandating that labels on food disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients, top lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee reached an agreement establishing a mandatory national system for GMO labeling.

The federal bill — which would supersede any state law — offers companies a variety of options on how they choose to disclose the presence of GMOs. For example, they could place information or a symbol on food packaging, provide a QR or quick response code, or steer consumers to a website or phone number containing additional information.

The Vermont law — which took effect July 1, 2016, but would be nullified once the federal bill has been finalized — requires the labeling of food offered for sale by retailers in Vermont that has been produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering. But while manufacturers and suppliers are required to comply, the law does not extend to food prepared in restaurants.

Among other things, the Vermont law specifically exempts “an unpackaged food that is served, sold or otherwise provided in a restaurant or other establishment primarily engaged in the sale of food prepared and intended for immediate consumption.”

Meanwhile, the Senate bill must be passed in the Agriculture Committee and then the full Senate. Following that, it would be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But while the restaurant industry is not always directly in the crosshairs of this recent regulatory action, experts still urge operators to remain watchful.

“While much of the focus over the last year has been on business model issues like wages and benefits, the recent activity on [such issues as] sodium labeling in New York City and the FDA’s new recommendations on sodium consumption demonstrate that operators cannot lose sight of the fact that the battle over product offerings and ingredients continues,” Align's Henderson says.

Farrell agrees, saying, “The restaurant industry, like other industries,  needs to be aware of what the government is proposing to do and to take the steps it deems necessary to be involved in those actions. All these issues are being driven by the concern for the health of Americans, and their eating behaviors and patterns, whether at home or at a restaurant.”



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