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Menu labeling for chain restaurants is finally the law

A surprising quest begun by the industry a decade ago goes into effect Monday, with the focus on compliance rather than catching transgressors.

After 10 years of fits and starts, menu labeling finally becomes a federal obligation for chain restaurants on May 7. Units of brands with at least 20 branches will be required to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards in accordance with precise guidelines hammered out by the federal government and industry groups over the course of years.

Additional nutritional information must be made available to customers upon request.

Alternative service formats such as buffets and delis have their own thorough instructions from the Food and Drug Administration for complying.

“We believe the final set of rules and the guidance have turned out really favorable for us, and the FDA has been a good partner,” says Cicely Simpson, EVP of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association. “We believe we’re in the best spot we could hope to be.”

One of the few loose ends is how the FDA will police the regulations. “That is still an equation they’re working on,” as officials alerted the industry several months ago, notes Simpson. “They’re going to spend the next few months helping the industry come into compliance.”

It may not be an arduous task in regard to restaurants. “The industry is ready,” says Simpson, noting that the regulations were set to go into force a year ago, but were postponed days beforehand by the Trump administration. Many in the industry objected, asking why there was any need to wait.

“The industry is not only ready, but excited and eager,” says Simpson. “A lot of them are already labeling. Even those who aren’t labeling yet say they’re ready.” Plus, consumers have clearly demonstrated their desire for nutritional information.

Adoption also lessens the chances of a jurisdiction enacting its own peculiar set of nutrition-disclosure rules, as New York City tried to do after the federal start time was pushed back a year from the original date of May 5, 2017.

“What led us to this point in the first place was the patchwork of laws, each very different,” Simpson says. For instance, a law enacted in some parts of New York imposed the disclosure requirements on chains with 15 units. “That’s what led us to menu labeling in the first place and to go to Congress and ask for this.”

The federal requirements trump all state and local rules.

The restaurant association and individual chains first proposed a federal labeling requirement in 2008, stunning many longtime observers of the industry’s political stance. Traditionally, restaurants had opposed any sort of government restriction or requirement. Now it was suddenly asking for a legal obligation, countering the trade’s perception within the Beltway as a business that could only say “No.”

“It has changed things,” says Simpson. “It’s put us on a different glide pattern.”

Still, menu labeling has come at a real cost. The FDA estimates the cost of compliance across all industries selling ready-to-eat food—c-stores and supermarkets as well as restaurants—at $17 billion for the next 20 years.

Independent restaurants, meanwhile, have voiced fears that labeling requirements will be pushed down to them, creating an operational nightmare as well as a new cost.

That’s not likely to happen, says Simpson. “Smaller operators may choose to do this as they see others labeling, but it would be on a voluntary basis,” she says. “We don’t expect it to be pushed down to operations with fewer than 20 units.

“The industry is welcoming of this, not only because it’s welcomed by consumers, but because of the spirit that this is a gift for the industry,” concludes Simpson.

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