Menu Labeling & Posting Calories

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Menu Labeling & Posting Calories

A lot of public debate continues over President Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act. Although one provision of that law has not received much public attention, it still remains highly controversial in the food industry. It’s the provision that requires restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores and other food preparers to post the calorie counts for each food item on menus or public display boards. The idea is simple. If people know how many calories they are consuming when eating away from home they are more likely to make healthier choices. It is one small strategy to attack our nation’s obesity problem. Even though federal guidelines have not been firmly established, consumers are already seeing calorie counts listed on menus in various restaurants and other food establishments.

Menu labeling requirements are not new in the United States. A 2011 survey conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found a number of states and localities that either already have enacted or are considering such a law. A map highlighting those places can be found at http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/ml_map.pdf

However, critics claim that the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA), charged with issuing regulations to implement the menu labeling law, is dragging its feet.  Earlier this year, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told The Associated Press that drafting regulations for menu labeling “has gotten extremely thorny” as the FDA tries to figure out who should be covered by the law. “There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side, and we have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable,” Hamburg told The Associated Press in March of this year. See http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2013/03/12/fda-head-says-menu-labeling-thorny-issue

In April of this year, after Hamburg spoke to The Associated Press, the FDA released two proposed regulations for public comment. One proposed regulation covers menu requirements for restaurants and  “similar retail food establishments” and the other proposed regulation covers calorie labeling for vending machines. Those proposed regulations can be found at http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm248732.htm  To summarize, the FDA proposed rules that require restaurants with 20 or more locations, bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores, coffee chains and other similar establishments to clearly post calories on menus and menu boards. Exempt from the proposed regulations are airplanes, theaters, alcohol, bowling alleys and businesses whose primary business is not to sell food. Restaurants and food establishments not covered can choose to “opt in” by registering with the FDA. These basic concepts would also apply to vending machine operators.

Even as the FDA’s proposed regulations are far from becoming enacted into law, Members of Congress are already trying to side step some key provisions. The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2013 was introduced in the House of Representatives to limit the calorie posting requirements for convenience stores, super markets and other establishments. An overview of that bill can be found at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr1249

While most observers don’t believe the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act will pass in Congress, it is a good example of the “extremely thorny” nature of battle within the food industry over this new law. While it will take more time before the FDA enacts its final set of regulations, consumers should not be surprised to see more and more food establishments beginning to post calorie counts for food. Hopefully, this meaningful information will help consumers make better food choices.

 

Kirk Schroder / Food Advocate / foodadvocate@ellwoodthompsons.com