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Bipartisan blowback over calorie count rule

Bipartisan blowback over calorie count rule
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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is facing major blowback on Capitol Hill over a controversial ObamaCare rule that requires restaurants to list the number of calories in the foods they sell.

The menu labeling requirements, set to take effect in December, are under attack from both sides of the aisle, setting up a showdown between Congress and the Obama administration. 

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A group of 32 senators is demanding acting FDA Commissioner Stephen Ostroff delay the rules until after the 2016 presidential election, which could give the next president a chance to block the rule altogether.

The top two senators on the Health Committee, Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMnuchin, Price meet with GOP senators Reid bids farewell to the Senate Reid defends relationship with McConnell in farewell speech MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatty MurrayReid defends relationship with McConnell in farewell speech Top Dem signals likely opposition to Sessions nomination Overnight Finance: Trump takes victory lap at Carrier plant | House passes 'too big to fail' revamp | Trump econ team takes shape MORE (D-Wash.), are leading the effort to get the FDA to delay the rule.

The senators say restaurants and other food establishments “need appropriate time to budget and plan accordingly to meet the rule’s requirements to provide nutrition information to consumers that is understandable and clear,” according to a letter sent to Ostroff.

“While we recognize the benefit of improved access to nutritional information for consumers, we are concerned that the lack of clear and consistent guidance from the agency will make it difficult, confusing, and burdensome for businesses, particularly smaller businesses,” the senators wrote.

This comes after Reps. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersMesser eyes challenging Donnelly for Indiana Senate seat Trump's Cabinet: What jobs are left to fill The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Wash.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) introduced legislation last month in the House that would chip away at the menu labeling requirements.

The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act would exempt most non-restaurant businesses from the rule by making sure the labeling requirements only apply to companies that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from selling prepared foods. 

The legislation has 15 co-sponsors, most of whom are Republicans.

If let to stand as is, the rule would impact grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, entertainment venues, movie theaters, amusement parks, bowling alleys, miniature golf courses and other businesses that sell “restaurant-like” food.

Food establishments with more than 20 locations would be required to list the number of calories in the prepared food they sell. 

Health advocates say consumers will benefit from the menu labeling requirements because they would have access to more information about the foods they eat.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that a “delay is reasonable” but that “we’re anxious to get the calorie labeling to the public as soon as possible.”

“These senators are asking that supermarkets be given more time to comply, not that they be exempted from providing calories for their prepared, restaurant-like foods,” she added.

The restaurant industry is generally on board with the menu requirements. Many fast-food joints are already complying with the rules, and they want to be on a level field with their competitors.

“We want a uniform approach to nutrition disclosures,” said Dan Roehl, vice president of government relations at National Restaurant Association. “If you’re serving restaurant-type food, then you should have to follow the rules.”

But many of the other food establishments covered under the rule complain that it would be unfair to expect grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, sports arenas and even movie theaters to comply with the rule when only a small portion of their sales come from prepared foods.

“The challenge for our industry is we have so many questions that still remain unanswered from the FDA that it’s just not feasible for this rule to go into effect yet,” said Greg Ferrara, spokesman for the National Grocers Association.

This story was updated at 7:16 p.m.