FDA rolls out ObamaCare menu regs

The Food and Drug Administration will require restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations to list the total number of calories in foods and drinks they sell, the agency is expected to announce Tuesday.

The menu labeling requirements, which come from a provision of ObamaCare, will be expanded to include entertainment venues like movie theaters, sports stadiums, amusement parks, bowling alleys and miniature golf courses that serve prepared foods.

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Vending machines will also face new calorie-labeling requirements.

“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home and people today expect clear information about the products they consume,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters in a press call. “Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.” 

The FDA is finalizing the rules more than three years after they were originally proposed.

The rules would apply to the prepared foods sold by chain restaurants and stores that have 20 or more locations. They go into effect in one year for these stores, and two years for vending machines.

Public health groups like the menu-labeling requirements. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called it a “landmark public health policy that will help consumers decide how many calories they want to eat."

But the food industry expressed mixed reactions to the menu labeling requirements.

The National Restaurant Association, which pushed for the rules to be included as a requirement of ObamaCare, said it is satisfied with how the regulation turned out.

“(We) strongly believe in the importance of providing nutrition information to consumers to empower them to make the best choices for their dietary needs,” National Restaurant Association President Dawn Sweeney said in a statement. 

“We believe that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers,” Sweeney added.

But most other business groups say they are extremely disappointed with how the rules turned out.

Pizza restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores all wailed against the labeling requirements. 

Domino’s executive vice president, Lynn Liddle, who is also chairwoman of the American Pizza Community, said she is disappointed that pizza restaurants will still be required to post the calories on all of its menus. Domino’s already posts that information online, but was seeking a reprieve from positing calorie counts on in-store menus.

“They’re forcing it to be one-size fits all,” Liddle said.

The FDA, however, did provide some wiggle room for pizza joints. They will be allowed to list the number of calories by slice instead of by box, Hamburg said.

Hamburg said the move was aimed at giving pizza restaurants more “flexibility.”

“That makes sense, because people don’t eat a whole pizza,” Liddle said. “They eat on average two slices.”

Meanwhile, grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores will be required to list the number of calories in certain prepared foods they serve that are intended to be eaten immediately.

For example, the rules would apply to turkey sandwiches and individual salads sold at grocery stores, but not larger portions of deli meat or cheese that is sliced up and intended to be eat over the course of a week.

Grocery stores’ bakeries would also be exempt from counting the calories in cake.

Hamburg said the rules are “narrower” than originally proposed, but grocery stores are still fuming.

Rob Rosado, director of government relations at the Food Marketing Institute, said it could cost the grocery industry $1 billion to comply in the first year. This, he reasons, will lead many stores to stop selling fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. 

“Anything that is made with fresh items from the grocery store, whether it’s a chicken sandwich or a salad, those are going to become so costly that grocery stores won’t be able to offer them anymore,” Rosado said.

Gas stations and convenience stores like 7-Eleven would be required to list the calories of hot dogs they sell from the grill, as well as slushies and other frozen drinks.

“Convenience stores shouldn’t be sucked into this law that was intended for restaurants, because they cannot comply with it,” said Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations at the National Association of Convenience Stores.

The FDA will also require entertainment venues to list the number of calories in foods they sell, after the congressional authors of the menu labeling requirements — Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinDistance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday Grassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream MORE (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) — complained they were excluded from the proposed rules.

“It’s very clear that movie theaters offer a lot of food with a consistent menu and those foods look very much like foods you might get at a fast food restaurant — hot dogs, pizza, nachos,” Hamburg said.

Ice cream shops that sell by the scoop will also be required to list the number of calories — as will coffee shops that sell muffins, the FDA noted.

Restaurants and bars will also be required to list the calories in alcoholic beverages they sell. This requirement was lifted from the proposed rule, but added back in after popular demand, Hamburg said.

“It’s really important that alcoholic beverages be labeled so people can see how many calories they’re drinking,” Wootan said.

The American Cancer Society also expressed support for the rule.

“In an age when at least one-third of all consumer food spending is on food prepared away from home, consumers will now have more nutrition information than ever at their fingertips when they purchase food from many of the nation’s chain restaurants, vending machines, convenience stores and supermarket cafes,” said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society.