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FDA publishes final menu labeling rule

The Food and Drug Administration announced today it has finalized the long-awaited final rules on menu labeling in restaurants and other establishments and that they will be published in the Federal Register on Monday.

The rules implement a section of the Affordable Care Act and require calorie counts on foods and beverages served retail food establishments and vending machines with 20 or more locations.

The menu labeling rule also includes food facilities in entertainment venue chains such as movie theaters and amusement parks.

“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 Hamburg said in a news release.

“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.”

FDA said it considered more than 1,100 comments from stakeholders and consumers, which led to narrowing the scope of foods covered by the rule to more clearly focus on restaurant-type food, made other adjustments such as ensuring the flexibility for multi-serving dishes like pizza to be labeled by the slice rather than as a whole pie, and provided establishments additional time to comply with the rule.

To the apparent surprise of almost everyone involved, the rules also cover alcoholic beverages listed on menus. FDA said in the news release that the majority of comments supported including alcohol because of the impact on public health.

Restaurants and similar retail food establishments will have one year to comply with the menu labeling requirements.

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

The rules won praise from both Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a chief sponsor of menu labeling, and the National Restaurant Association.

“I applaud the administration for issuing a strong rule and, while I am still reading the final version, it looks very much in line with congressional intent,” DeLauro said.

“Americans eat nearly half their meals and snacks outside of their homes, and research shows that many of these foods have more calories and poorer nutritional quality than those prepared at home. Calorie and nutrition transparency is crucial for empowering consumers to make healthy choices, and is one tool to address our public health crises of obesity and diabetes.

“Now we must stand strong against the inevitable industry push back and efforts to overturn this common sense step to make nutrition information more readily available to consumers,” DeLauro added.

The National Restaurant Association, which pushed for national labeling to counter the labeling movement in the states, praised the rule.

“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,” the restaurant association said in a news release.

“We look forward to working with the agency as the implementation period begins and toward helping the industry adjust to the new rules. We appreciate the diligence the FDA took in understanding the complexities of how this regulation will impact the restaurant industry, and the patrons of restaurants all across the country,” the organization added.

The association said that nutrition information will be available in 200,000 restaurants nationwide.

But National Grocers Association President and CEO Peter Larkin said his group is disappointed that grocery store cafes are included in the rule.

“The scope of the nutrition labeling provision as proposed by Congress was to provide a uniform standard for chain restaurant menu labeling, not grocery stores,” Larkin said.

“Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law. We are disappointed that the FDA’s final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members. NGA will continue to work with Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to address this regulatory overreach.”

The New York Times and The Washington Post reported today that various industry groups are upset with the rules. (See links.)

“Calorie labeling is an excellent tool for public education,” New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle blogged today.

“The regs won’t go into effect for another year or two. Watch the lobbying begin! In the meantime congratulations to the FDA for putting public health first.”

FDA Department of Health Human Services — Final Rule: Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments
— Final Rule: Calorie Labeling of Articles of Food in Vending Machines
— Consumer Health Information: How Many Calories? Look at the Menu!
The New York Times — F.D.A. to Require Calorie Count, Even for Popcorn at the Movies
The Washington Post — Calorie counts: Coming to a restaurant, movie theater, vending machine near you