Menu Machinations

Sheetz, NACS among those weighing in on calorie posting requirements

WASHINGTON -- Regulators' appetite for calorie counts is about to extend beyond restaurants to thousands of other places that offer food, including airplanes, movie theaters and convenience stores, reported The Wall Street Journal. The expansion stems from provisions in the health-care overhaul enacted in March.

Section 4205 of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calorie content information for standard menu items on restaurant menus and menu boards, [image-nocss] including drive-through menu boards.

In preliminary guidelines released last week, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) said the scope of the law stretches beyond restaurants to encompass airlines, trains, grocery-store food courts, movie theaters and convenience stores that qualify as chains. The FDA plans to make official who is covered, and how, in December.

Click here for the FDA page on the new menu and vending machines labeling requirements.

Andclick here to view "Draft Guidance for Industry: Questions and Answers Regarding Implementation of the Menu Labeling Provisions of Section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010" (August 2010).

The government wants calorie listings posted to make it easier for consumers to select healthier options, and the restaurant industry backed the move so it could avoid a patchwork of local ordinances that are developing, said the report.

So far, the expansion of the calorie counts beyond restaurants has drawn praise from nutrition advocates, the Joutnal said, but pushback from industries that say the original legislation was never intended to hit them.

"People don't go to movie theaters for the primary purpose of eating," said Gary Klein, a vice president for a group representing theater owners. "Why aren't ballparks covered? You think the food served at ballparks is healthy?"

Stadiums aren't listed since they are not chains, the report said.

Within grocery stores, the agency said, it is considering including salad bars, store bakeries, pizza bars and delicatessens.

For consumers, the change marks the next installment of nutrition labeling requirements that swept across the packaged food industry in the 1990s. About 20 cities or states have enacted or passed local ordinances requiring calorie postings on menus since New York City pioneered the requirement in 2008, said the report.

Health advocates say the change could be a powerful tool in fighting the obesity epidemic, a top initiative in Washington since first lady Michelle Obama made childhood obesity her signature cause in February.

"Everybody's going to be a little bit better informed, and that's a good thing," Lou Sheetz, executive vice president at Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc., told the newspaper.

The 380-store convenience chain is preparing to post calorie information at kiosks where customers order food. "In all likelihood, it's going to have a negative impact on those items that had a higher calorie count than people thought," said Sheetz. But that will be offset by higher sales of healthier items, he predicted.

Research cited by the Journal has shown mixed results on whether New York City's requirement has prompted consumers to select healthier foods. A 2009 study published in the journal Health Affairs did not find evidence that menu labeling influenced the total number of calories purchased by New York residents. A Stanford University study of Starbucks outlets in New York City found that average calories per transaction fell by 6% after menu listings took effect.

Some industries that have been largely untouched by the local ordinances are trying to chip away at the national requirement before it takes effect.
"We're not restaurants," said Erik Lieberman, regulatory counsel for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). "The vast majority of supermarket consumers are not consuming the food they purchased at the store within the store."

The health law requires the calorie listing to be clear and conspicuousand next to the name of the foodbut details remain to be worked out by the FDA.

For industries that don't necessarily use menus, the requirements could pose a new dilemma, said the report. Americans Airlines Inc. said it does not offer printed menus in the main cabin for international flights, where traditional meal service often is still available, though it has them for first-class passengers.

Julie Fields, director of government relations at the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), said her members are puzzled about how to label offerings that do not have menus, such as hot dogs on roller grills.
The early guidelines suggest grocery chains could have to post caloric contents for bulk foods sold in supermarket aisles, sandwiches assembled at the deli and fish sold at the seafood counter. Stores say it is nearly impossible to give useful information on calorie contents at salad bars because consumers determine their own portions.

Schnucks, a 105-location grocery chain based in St. Louis, Mo., says it is particularly concerned about bakery items, which it says most people wait until they get home to eat.

"Grocery customers, in the main, have not asked for this additional effort, so you would have to wonder why they would have to pay for the effort," Lori Willis, a spokesperson for the chain, told the Journal.