If you've visited a favorite restaurant in the past week or so, you may have noticed that things were a little different on the menu. Last week, a new federal rule went into effect requiring chain restaurants to list nutritional values on their menus.
The rule, which was proposed initially by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) back in 2010, became law in 2014 as a provision of the Affordable Care Act. The ruling states that any “food service business” with 20 or more locations must list nutritional information for all food items on all menus and signage.
It’s not just restaurants that are affected. Movie theaters, gas stations, grocery store chains, and more also must follow the mandate. Any group of locations that sells ready to eat foods must comply with this requirement.
Some in the industry welcomed the mandate.
“This is a welcome development for both the restaurant industry and consumers, and we are pleased that our efforts to preserve the May 7th compliance date were successful," Cicely Simpson, executive vice president at the National Restaurant Association, said. "By setting a clear standard, this rule provides the necessary guidance and expectations for America’s restaurants to follow in order to continue delivering a high-quality experience and customer service to everyone who walks through our doors, as well as the transparency our customers demand.”
Others were not as enthusiastic. U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-WA, and Loretta Sanchez, D-CA, co-authored the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act in 2017. The intent of the act was to introduce some flexibility within the FDA's broader mandate. Of particular concern was the financial effect the labeling change would have on smaller locations.
While the act had bipartisian support, it did not make it out of Congress. As it stands, this is a change that the Office of Management and Budget estimated would take over 10 million hours to complete. It’s a number that many see as concerning for some.
“Implementation of this regulation represents one of the costliest regulations for the supermarket industry with estimates exceeding $1 billion for the supermarket industry alone," Laura S. Strange of the National Grocers Association said. "Recipes must be standardized, nutritional information must be calculated by outside parties or software, in-store signage must be created, and training must be conducted.”
Strange cited a particular concern over how the members of her association would be affected.
“The menu labeling law, as originally passed by Congress, was intended to cover chain restaurants, but since its passage was expanded to capture chain supermarkets," she said. "Unlike chain restaurants, locally owned supermarkets operate in a variety of formats and often cater unique, non-standardized foods items to the communities they serve where recipes, even for the same item, can sometimes vary from store to store.”
Other food service associations have cited concerns over potential punishments for establishments that do a primarily delivery business but are still required to change all in-location signage. They sought an exemption to post the required nutrition information online.
"While independent supermarkets are not seeking an exemption, and are preparing to comply with the rule, important regulatory fixes that would eliminate confusion and uncertainty in implementation are needed," Strange said. "Additionally, there should be assurances to protect front line employees and stores from criminal penalties for simple, human error and shield businesses from frivolous lawsuits.”
For now, all locations must be cautious of not just what they sell but where it comes from. For example, if a supplier changes, all of the nutritional information will need to be recalculated.