The Food and Drug Administration released long-awaited draft regulations April 1 spelling out how the agency proposes to implement a new federal law that requires certain chain restaurants to add calorie data to menus and menu boards and make other nutrition data available to guests on request.
The draft rules come a little more than a year after Congress passed the federal law setting the first uniform federal standard for nutrition disclosure in some chain restaurants. The federal standard, enacted March 23, 2010, will replace a grab-bag of confusing and overlapping state and local menu-labeling requirements for covered restaurants.
"The National Restaurant Association strongly supported and advocated for the law that will provide consumers with uniform and consistent nutrition information in hundreds of thousands of restaurant locations nationwide," said NRA President and CEO Dawn Sweeney. "From Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, the new standard will help chain restaurants provide the same type of nutrition information to consumers in any part of the country."
The FDA's proposal is just that -- a proposal. Many of the FDA's suggestions for how to implement the law are tentative, and the agency has raised dozens of questions for feedback from the restaurant industry and others.
The agency will take public comment on its proposal for the next 60 days. The NRA is doing a full review of the proposed regulations and will work with its members to provide the FDA with detailed industry comments by the agency's June 6 deadline.
The agency says it hopes to sift through all public comments and issue final regulations by the end of 2011. The FDA then proposes giving restaurants six months after final regulations are published to comply with the new rules, although it says input on effective dates is welcome.
Under the FDA's proposed timelines, the law thus would likely not be enforced for covered restaurants until mid-2012 at the earliest.
What the Law Requires
The law's menu-labeling provisions generally apply to restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations that operate under the same brand name and sell substantially the same menu items across their locations.
The law requires covered establishments to provide calorie counts on menus and menu boards for standard menu items, and offer additional written nutrition information to guests who request it. The labeling rules also apply to service-service food and food on display. Extra data that must be available on request would include information on total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber and protein. The FDA proposed adding trans fat to the list of nutrient data that must be provided on request.
The FDA tentatively concluded that alcoholic beverages should not be covered by the menu-labeling rules.
Devil's in the Details
The FDA's proposed regulations on the federal menu-labeling law run 183 pages. Included in the fine print of the April 1 proposed rules:
-- How FDA proposes that restaurants display calories in a "clear and conspicuous" way on menus and menu boards (including drive-thru menus), including how to position the terms "calories" or "cal" in the display. The FDA's proposal gets down to specifics by proposing that calories be displayed on menus and menu boards "in a type size no smaller than the name or the price of the associated standard menu item, whichever is smaller, in the same color, or a color at least as conspicuous as the name of the associated standard menu item, and with the same contrasting background as the name of the associated standard menu item.”
-- How FDA proposes that restaurants calculate and show nutrition data for items such as combination meals, self-service beverages, pizzas with a range of toppings, food at salad bars, buffets and cafeteria lines, and bakery items on display.
-- How FDA proposes defining daily specials, custom menu orders, test-market items and other food and beverage items that aren't considered "standard" menu items and thus aren't covered by calorie-posting rules.
-- FDA's proposed language for a required menu notice advising guests that further written nutrition data is available on request for standard menu items.
-- FDA's proposed language for a required menu statement advising guests how calories fit into a recommended daily diet: "A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary."
-- What it means for restaurants to have a "reasonable basis" for believing that the nutrition data they present is accurate.
Get details and updates at www.restaurant.org/menulabeling.