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Reading labeling: FDA regulations

What to know about the FDA’s final menu-labeling regs.

They’ve been kicked around since the idea was first given life in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act. Now, at last, the Food and Drug Administration has released final menu-labeling rules for chains, and operators have a year to fall in line. “There are no new wrinkles we didn’t anticipate … no secret hidden traps we’re aware of,” says Scott DeFife, executive vice president, policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association. That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, of course, such as calorie counts of foods made by hand not being an exact science. Here are a few need-to-know points from the long-anticipated decree:

Alcohol counts, sometimes

Because they are listed on the menu, cocktails and other specialty drinks count as menu items that just so happen to include alcohol and are thus covered in labeling requirements. “It’s on the menu and fits all other criteria,” says DeFife. There also will be some coverage of wine and beer, but the NRA is waiting on more guidance with those rules, DeFife says.

Leeway for shared meals

“There’s flexibility for menu items that serve multiple people,” says DeFife. This includes items such as pizza and family meals, which aren’t intended as a single serving. The calorie count of these meals can be listed for the whole menu item or broken down by individual serving unit (such as a slice of pizza).

Relief for special orders

The rules only apply to regular-menu items, not off-menu requests or specials. “Pizza restaurants, for example, don’t need to [analyze] every potential combination of toppings known to man, just the standard builds,” says DeFife.

More than one way to list the RDA

It doesn’t come as a shock that restaurants need to cite the recommended daily allowance of 2,000 calories on the menu and menu boards, but it’s still not something operators are too keen to promote. The FDA has laid out some rules for formatting and placement (type size, contrasting color, and so on), but has left exact specifications to the operator.

It won’t bankrupt you

“There’s a lot of misinformation,” says DeFife. Many opposed to the rules, especially lobbyists in the convenience-store and grocery markets, have put out misleading information about the cost of menu analysis, he says. “You don’t have to have a $1,000 analysis on all menu items or send them all to labs. There are other, low-cost ways of getting the calorie count,” such as working with analysis partners.

Small chains can participate, too

All chains with 20 or more units are required to abide by the national regulations. For chains less than 20 units, in an area where state or local restrictions vary from the federal rules, operators can opt into the federal program. By doing so, they will get protection from regulations that are potentially more stringent, says DeFife. 

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