Thursday, April 21, 2011

Decoded: the National Menu Labeling Law

By now you have probably read headline after headline announcing the FDA’s release of proposed guidelines for calorie labeling in restaurants and vending machines.  But what does it all mean?  The document itself is 138 pages, but all you want are some answers to some very standard questions, right?  What rules have actually been enacted?  What types of establishments will be included?  When will this all be enforced?
These questions have flooded the FoodCALC office since the FDA’s release; and I was as stumped as everyone else until I decided to decode the massive document for you.  Here’s what you need to know:

The What
What the FDA published on April 1 is essentially clarified guidance on the national menu labeling law.  Though its contents have been highly anticipated by the restaurant industry, nothing in this document turned out to be particularly unexpected.  Perhaps the most important thing to note is that it is not a final ruling.  These are merely proposed guidelines and the final regulation release date remains unknown (contrary to the many stories you may have read lately which speculate that time to comply is running out). 

The Who
Restaurant chains and food establishments with 20 or more locations.
  • This includes: restaurants and fast-food places, bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores, coffee shops, snack bars, and vending machines.
  • This does not include: movie theatres, amusement parks, airlines, hotels, and other establishments whose primary purpose is not to sell food. 
A good rule of thumb for determining if a place is defined as primarily in the food business?  If more than half of the floor space is used to sell food.

The When
The law will become effective six months from the release of the final regulations.  That means it could easily be a year before enforcement begins. According to their website, the FDA plans to issue final rules before the end of 2011.

The Where
Calorie information must be posted directly on the menu or menu board (this is either a printed menu or a menu behind a cash register).  In addition to calorie counts, a statement regarding suggested daily calorie intake must be included in order to give context to the menu items’ calories.  This statement should read:

“A 2,000 calorie daily diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual needs may vary.”
There should also be a statement alerting consumers “additional nutrition information is available upon request.”  This information can take practically any form so long as it is accessible to the customer (a counter card, sign, poster, handout, booklet, etc).  It must contain full nutrition information for each menu item, including total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and protein.

The Why
Obesity is an acknowledged epidemic in the United States and is considered a major public health problem worldwide.  With families eating out more than ever before, pressure has been put on the restaurant industry to become more transparent with their customers about the nutrition of their menu offerings.  “We do see this as an important step in providing consumers with information they can use in choosing healthy diets and fighting obesity,” said Michael R. Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for foods.
With hundreds of thousands of restaurants affected by compliance regulations, a record number of non-chain restaurants are now starting to voluntarily offer nutrition information.  This is because the trend of menu labeling has become so prominent that consumers have come to expect the information, and supplying it has proven to give many restaurants a competitive advantage. 

The Fine Print
There’s plenty of it.  The guidelines cover everything from drive-though menus, self-service items, combination meals, custom orders, and restaurant specials.  A more comprehensive overview of these details can be found on the FoodCALC resource page. 
A few additional points worth noting:
  • Alcoholic beverages are exempt.
  • Nutrition information is expected to be within a 20% accuracy range.
  • Nutrition information must be established by means of reasonable basis, which includes databases like MenuCalc, cookbooks, laboratory analysis, and nutrition labels from product packaging.
  • Restaurants are required to show proof of the reasonable basis and documentation of nutrition analysis (i.e. MenuCalc summary reports) if requested during inspection.

The FDA estimates that roughly 278,600 restaurants organized under 1,640 chains will be affected by these rulings, and they are taking their time in making a final decision.  Public comment will be accepted beginning April 6, 2010, for 60 days. 

Whether it is a response to political or consumer pressure, restaurants providing nutrition information is fast becoming an everyday part of the dining experience.  Whatever one’s personal feelings on menu labeling may be, its potential to have a direct effect on business makes it a worthwhile trend to follow.


  1. I think restaurants that provides nutrition information are commendable because they let their customers know what they are eating. For those who are in strict diet like me, I care about how much calories will I take on every food intake.

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  2. For all the media coverage on the national menu labeling law, you'd think restaurant operators would have some answers by now about what the law covers and when it will be enacted. Most recently, the FDA's release of proposed guidelines for calorie labeling in restaurants and vending machines has dominated industry headlines.

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