FDA chief: Calorie labeling rules more difficult than expected

New regulations requiring most restaurants to post calorie information about their food were difficult to write but will be out “soon,” according to the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said at an event sponsored by Bloomberg Government on Tuesday that crafting the rules, which will apply to restaurants with 20 or more locations, was “more complicated” than she originally expected.

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When she first heard that the agency would be in charge of issuing the regulations under the Affordable Care Act, Hamburg said she “actually thought that will be one of the most straightforward tasks.”

“Little did I know how complicated it would be,” she said, to determine which establishments would be required to post the information.

The law calls for the agency to mandate calorie labels at vending machines, restaurants and “similar retail food establishments” to help consumers make healthier choices and discourage obesity.

Defining precisely which outlets count as “similar retail food establishments,” however, has been “the most complicated” part of writing the new rule, Hamburg said.

“Should a movie theater that has a full menu and has all kinds of foodstuff be included in menu labeling?” she asked. "Or what about a pizza place that doesn’t allow patrons to dine in and only delivers?"

Movie theaters will be exempt from the requirement, according to the FDA.

The regulations were first proposed in April of 2011. The FDA received more than 900 comments based on the initial draft, which the agency is still reviewing.

“We’ve put out proposed rules about menu labeling and we’re now in the process of responding to all of the feedback that we’ve gotten,” Hamburg said. “We’re making it through that process and I think we’ll be coming out with final rules soon.”

The regulations were previously expected to be released in September.

Many conservatives and business groups have protested the regulations, arguing that they represent government interference in private businesses and would be too expensive to implement. 

Some restaurant groups have backed the new rules, but convenience stores, supermarkets, pizza chains and others have lobbied for exemptions from the requirements.

According to the FDA’s analysis, the new regulation could cost as much as $537 million.