Restaurants brace for calorie labeling rule

Restaurants brace for calorie labeling rule
© Getty Images

Restaurants are bracing for new calorie disclosure regulations they say could trim their profit margins as much as their customers’ waistlines.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is moving to require restaurants to list the total number of calories in each cheeseburger, pizza and hotdog they sell.

ADVERTISEMENT
The menu-labeling rule, due out any day, is expected to be one of the most expensive regulations to hit the food industry in recent years, business groups said. Not only does it take aim at restaurants, but, depending on its final language, the rule could also apply to grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations and movie theaters that sell prepared food.

The nation’s eateries are faced with the costly prospect of having to calculate the number of calories in the various meals they serve.

“Not every steak is exactly the same,” says Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Industry. “The slightest variation in how I cut the steak and serve it can affect the nutritional content.”

The FDA’s menu labeling rule, a requirement of ObamaCare, was proposed more than three years ago. It was formally submitted to the White House for final review in April, prompting a flurry of meetings between administration officials and groups trying to influence its final form.

The FDA had anticipated a final rule being issued over the summer, but interests on both sides of the issue are still waiting — and expect an announcement at any time.

A regulation that hews closely to the proposed rule would be problematic for the food industry, groups said.

The draft language would require restaurants and grocery chains with more than 20 locations that devote more than half of their floor space to selling food to list the number of calories in each item of food they prepare.

Public health groups say the rule could improve people’s diets, because it will give them a better idea of how many calories they’re eating.

“If someone is going to serve you thousands of calories, the least they could do is tell you how many calories it has,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But restaurants and grocery stores are concerned they’ll be required to recount the number of calories in a meal every time they tinker with a recipe, which they say would be nearly impossible to do considering the endless number of food combinations they sell.

At McDonald’s, for instance, a Big Mac is usually 550 calories, but it could be more for a customer who orders extra cheese.

It’s even more complicated for pizza joints.

Domino’s says there are 34 million potential combinations of its pizza that go well beyond a customer deciding between toppings like pepperoni and sausage. They also must factor in whether it’s a large, medium, or small pizza, deep dish or thin crust, and any extra ingredients.

Some restaurants like Domino’s have already begun disclosing the calories of their pizzas when customers order online. The difficulty, it says, is disclosing the calories in every possible pizza on a printed menu in the store.

“Pizza is so customizable that it’s literally impossible to put all the calorie information on a menu,” said Lynn Liddle, executive vice president of Domino’s and chairwoman of the American Pizza Community.

The National Restaurant Association is calling on the FDA to give restaurants some “flexibility" when it comes to counting calories.

“We want to see how much flexibility there will be on serving sizes," DeFife said.

One scenario that has attracted support is from pizza restaurants to list the calories in a cheese pizza along with the calories in each topping, so customers can add the numbers up for themselves.

Likewise, burger joints like McDonald’s might only be required to list the calories in sandwiches that are on the menu, but not for unpredictable special orders from customers.

Grocery stores are experiencing the same concerns, facing what they say is $1 billion in compliance costs in the first year alone.

They say 95 percent of the food they sell — like breakfast cereal, potato chips, milk — already lists nutritional information including the number of calories.

But the menu labeling requirements would target their delis, bakeries and any fresh fruit they slice up and put in containers to sell.

Grocery stores could end up paying a lab anywhere from $750 to $1,500 to come up with a calorie count for each item of prepared food they sell, according to Rob Rosado, director of government relations at the Food Marketing Institute.

That could push many grocery stores to close up their delis and bakeries and stop offering fresh fruit, Rosado says, while those delis that stay open would be limited to a very specific recipe, which Rosado says would be infeasible.

“I might sell chicken noodle soup every day, but some days I might use thigh meat, and other days I might use breast meat, or more noodles, rice, carrots, or celery,” Rosado said. “All of that varies based on what’s available in the store that day."

The same is true for gas stations and convenience stores like 7-Eleven that may sell fresh hotdogs or slices of pizza.

“We can’t test every option that a customer would want,” says Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations at the National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 7-Eleven.

But public health groups say the rules should apply evenly to restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores alike.

“It wouldn’t really make sense to have Pizza Hut’s salad bar covered, but not a grocery store’s salad bar, or the bakery items at Panera, but not at Safeway or Whole Foods,” Wootan said.

“It doesn’t matter whether the food is purchased from a restaurant or a supermarket, that food will have the same effect on people’s diets and their health no matter where it is sold,” she added.

Wootan would also like to see movie theaters included in the menu labeling requirements.

She seems to have support from the congressional authors of the menu labeling requirements, Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinThe Hill's 12:30 Report Distance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday Grassley challenger no stranger to defying odds MORE (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who not only believe restaurants and grocery stores should be covered, but also movie houses, miniature golf courses, amusement parks and any other venue that serves prepared food.

The two lawmakers have written numerous letters to the FDA saying they are disappointed with how “narrow” the rule is.

“In fact, Congress intended the scope of the disclosure law to extend to movie theaters, bowling alleys, bookstore cafes, and other like establishments, which is the very reason Congress used the phrase ‘and similar retail establishments’ in the statute to extend the reach of the law beyond restaurants,” the lawmakers wrote.