FDA Requires Calorie Labels at Groceries, Pizzerias

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, seeking to fight obesity, issued menu-labeling rules that force restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores to add calorie information to the food they sell.

The regulations catch the rest of the country up to what cities like New York have already done. Pizzerias, whose a la carte options make precise nutrition information difficult, will have to provide a range of calorie counts. Movie theaters, which had been spared in a draft version, were included in the final rules, as were alcoholic beverages.

While some companies, like McDonald’s Corp., had already been preparing for the changes, other industries were grappling today with how to implement the new rules. Grocery stores, for example, will have to provide calorie information on restaurant-style food from their salad or hot bars, though deli items like sliced meats and cheeses can be label-free.

“We wish that grocery stores were not included,” said Rob Rosado, director of government relations with the Food Marketing Institute. “It sets a bad precedent to pull a different industry or different sector into another line of business’ rules or regulations.”

The grocery industry will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to adjust to the new rules, Rosado’s group, an Arlington, Virginia-based lobby for grocery stores, said on its website. The grocery industry will need more time to go through the 395-page rule, Rosado said.

“We’re just trying to figure out what food’s in and what food’s not in,” he said.

Costs, Benefits

The rules will cost as much as $1.7 billion over 20 years across the industries and create as much as $9.2 billion in benefits, such as better public health, the FDA said in the final rules.

In an earlier analysis, the FDA had estimated the initial cost for implementing the changes would be from $98 million to $537 million, with grocery stores accounting for 4 percent of the cost. The FDA estimated total annual recurring costs of $24 million to $64 million. The agency said there were about 31,000 chain grocery-store establishments, and about 11,200 would fall under the rule.

The new regulations complete a process started four years ago with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Obesity affects more than one-third of American adults and 17 percent of children, according the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and contributes to conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Embarrassing Chains?

“It won’t stop the obesity epidemic, but it may make it better,” said Thomas Farley, the former New York City health commissioner who implemented menu labeling there in 2008. “They may serve as a damper on the arms race on portion sizes as chains are embarrassed to put 2,000-calorie counts on an entree.”

The national rules take effect in a year and apply to restaurant chains with 20 or more locations. A labeling rule for vending machines will apply in two years to companies that operate 20 or more machines. Other nutrition information, such as fat, carbohydrates or sugars, must be available upon request.

There is evidence that regulations like the FDA’s can have a modest effect. New York City found that about 15 percent of people surveyed as they exited restaurants said they used the calorie counts. And large chain restaurants introduced new food and beverage options last year that, on average, contain 60 fewer calories than their traditional menu selections in 2012, according to research released in October from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Special Occasion

Even when diners have a better sense of what they’re eating, they still may let themselves splurge.

“People, when they go to the restaurant, they’re not there to control calories,” said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst at NPD Group Inc. “There may be a few, but not many. They’re there to have a special occasion or indulge.”

Alcoholic beverages were exempt from an earlier draft rule because they’re primarily regulated by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. While booze is included in the final version, it only requires alcoholic drinks listed on menus to have calorie counts, not ones ordered special at the bar.

“That’s going to be tricky to implement, especially the cocktail part,” said Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Chicago-based researcher Technomic Inc. “A lot of consumers don’t know or don’t want to know that alcohol has a lot of calories.”

1,000 Calories

Movie theater chains, including Cinemark Holdings Inc., Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., made about 30 percent of revenue from concessions including candy, popcorn and soda, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. A large tub of movie theater popcorn contains about 1,000 calories, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Regal, Cinemark and AMC didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Pizza franchises initially balked at determining calorie counts for 34 million combinations of toppings, Jenny Fouracre, director of legislative affairs for Domino’s Pizza Inc., said on behalf of the American Pizza Community, the Washington-based lobby for pizza sellers.

Under the final rules, pizza chains will be able to post a range of calories for their items on menu boards. They won’t have to list the calorie count for every topping and will only have to post calorie counts online for delivery-only stores instead of on menu boards there.

Constantly Changing

The FDA received about 1,100 comments from interest groups, companies and citizens on the draft rules. “There was a lot of interest and a lot of input,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters yesterday on a conference call. “We’ve tried to be flexible and realistic as we’ve put together these final rules.”

Grocery stores were concerned that calculating and posting calories would curtail offerings in their fresh prepared foods sections, because the offerings are constantly changing.

Restaurants have generally accepted that labeling calories on their menus is necessary and that national standards are best, said Scott DeFife, executive vice president for policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association.

“Consumers want the information, so we need to find a consistent way to convey them,” DeFife said in an interview before the final rule was released.

McDonald’s Menu

Calorie counts will be available in more than 200,000 restaurants, the Washington-based restaurant association 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,” the association said.

The rules could lower how many calories Americans get on the plate when they order out. McDonald’s, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, began posting calorie counts on its menu boards in 2012 and said it would test healthier items, such as egg-white breakfast sandwiches, 350-calorie sweet chili chicken wraps and more produce side items.

“Restaurants will have an incentive to create healthier dishes, smaller portions,” said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “I believe that there is some evidence that that indeed has happened.”