Menu Labeling FAQ: All About The FDA Menu Labeling Law

By: Allie Tetreault

6 Minute Read

Oct 29, 2018

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Menu Labeling

Menu_Labeling

On Thursday, July 7, 2015 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) extended the deadline for menu labeling in restaurants another year. This law, written in full lengthy detail here, requires restaurants to unveil nutrition information directly on the menu.

Reading the comments on several news reports about this extension, I realized that many restaurant owners still have questions about this law, what it means for them, and exactly how they’ll need to change their menus. Similar questions are repeated often, and there doesn’t seem to be one go-to resource for restaurant owners to make sense of these regulations. That is, unless they have time to read through the entire extensive law.

Chances are, though, that you don’t have the time. So check out these answers to frequently asked questions about the FDA menu-labeling regulations right here.

What is the menu labeling law?

The menu labeling law, or the Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments, requires that restaurants with 20 or more locations, including entertainment venues chains in theatres and amusement parks, provide accurate calorie information for all menu items, as well as a suggestion for daily caloric intake.

Other nutrition information such as calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein must be made available to customers or to the FDA upon request.

These rules are required by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as prepared by the Obama Administration.

Why is the FDA menu labeling law important?

The purpose of menu labeling is to provide consumers with nutritional information about the foods they eat outside of their home. Especially for chains such as Burger King and McDonald’s, it will provide transparency to consumers about their health. In 2014, 30% of adults over 20 were obese, and that number is rising, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The FDA said the menu labeling law will allow people to make informed choices about what they eat. How will this affect your customers? According to the National Restaurant Association, three out of four Americans say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers healthy menu options. With a more transparent look into your menu, your customers will be afforded the option to make healthy eating choices.

When does the law go into effect?

When the FDA originally published the menu labeling rules in November 2014, they set the deadline to December 2015, curiously close to the EMV compliance deadline restaurant owners are also scrambling to meet.

However, the Obama Administration recently delayed the compliance date by a year to December 1, 2016. The FDA agreed that “additional time is necessary for the agency to provide further clarifying guidance to help facilitate efficient compliance across all covered businesses and for covered establishments to come into compliance with the final rule.”

I own a small restaurant. Does this law apply to me?

No, it does not! If you own a small restaurant, rest easy. Unless you are a retail food company with 20 or more locations, you do not need to post calorie counts on menus or menu boards.

If you own a chain restaurant, however, you should start considering how these regulations will affect your menu design and map out a timeline for projected changes. The FDA estimates that 1,640 chains around the country will be affected by the menu labeling law, with a total of 278,600 locations. That’s 27% of the approximately 1 million restaurants in the U.S.

How much is this going to cost my restaurant?

Complying with the law would cost $1,800 per limited service restaurant and less than $1,000 for a full-service concept, as estimated by the FDA.

Not complying with the law, however, will also cost your restaurant. Because the FDA menu labeling law is government-issued, misbranding food could result in criminal penalties. Instead of merely slapping a fine on your restaurant, the FDA could bring your restaurant to Federal court as committing a prohibited action. The misbranded food will may also be seized by order of the Federal court.

How is the FDA verifying compliance?

Calorie counts must be determined through laboratory analysis, nutrient databases, cookbooks, or FDA nutrient values. The FDA will require operators to provide documentation of that analysis, including method and data used to conclude caloric values, upon request.

Are there any menu items that do NOT require a calorie count?

Yes! These include:

  • Condiments such as ketchup or steak sauce for general use, including those placed on the table or on or behind the counter.
  • Daily specials and temporary menu items.
  • Custom orders.
  • Self-service food and food on display that is offered for sale for less than a total of 60 days per calendar year or fewer than 90 consecutive days in order to test consumer acceptance.

I’m curious: Who agrees with this law, and who doesn’t?

There has been a lot of discussion about the menu labeling law as of late. The National Restaurant Association was among more than 70 groups that pushed for this nationwide nutrition standard, which the association considers more effective than many different state regulations.

However, many pizzerias such as Domino’s Pizza have argued that they should be exempt from the law because customers typically order online or by phone, not in the store. Pushback from these industries, as well as confusion about which foods require calorie counts, is part of the reason Congress pressured the FDA to extend the compliance date.

Have any restaurants already started labeling their menus?

Yes! Most notably Starbucks, McDonald’s and Panera Bread. Many others are already preparing to implement these new menu regulations, while pizzerias and grocery store delis remain adamant that they should be exempt.

Any fun facts about this law?

Thanks for asking! You may see calorie stickers on vending machines as well as in chain restaurants. Most items in a vending machine already have calorie information available on the wrapper, but now this information will be posted on the machine itself, so you can second-guess that afternoon snack.

Another fun fact: We mentioned that menus and menu boards must provide a statement about suggested calorie intake. The exact wording of that statement is:

“2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”

Finally, the menu labeling rule also includes certain alcoholic beverages served in covered food establishments and listed on the menu. You can compare calories in your cocktail to calories in your beer!

I have more questions. Where can I go?

Next month, the FDA plans to issue answers to more frequently asked questions they have received, in order to further public comment and dialogue about the new law. For now, you can either comb through the posted law or comment below and a Toaster will do the research for you.

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