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FDA requires calorie counts for retail foods, vending machine fare

A restaurant in Washington, D.C., Aug. 26, 2014
A restaurant in Washington, D.C., Aug. 26, 2014 TNS

Truth in labeling is coming to a food outlet or vending machine near you.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that large chain restaurants, amusement parks, movie theaters – even supermarkets and convenience stores that serve prepared dishes – must provide calorie information about their food and beverage menu items beginning next year.

The new guidelines, which will apply to chains with more than 20 locations, will affect all kinds of eateries: bakeries, cafeterias, coffee shops and food service facilities in entertainment venues like bowling alleys. Ice cream shops, mall cookie vendors, candy stores, table-service restaurants and take-out and delivery food shops like pizza parlors, will also have to comply.

The new point-of-purchase labeling rules also require those chain outlets to display on their menus and menu boards a statement that additional nutrient information – such as sodium, sugar, fat and cholesterol content – is available in writing upon request.

Alcoholic beverages that appear on menus and menu boards will also be subject to calorie labeling under the FDA rules.

The new retail food service guidelines were required under the Affordable Care Act. They’ll take effect Dec. 1, 2015.

Vending machine operators will face similar FDA calorie labeling rules that take effect Dec. 1, 2016. They require calorie declarations on vending machines to be “clear and conspicuous and placed prominently” on a sign that’s inside or adjacent to the vending machine.

Both new rules, which encompassed 525 pages, were published Tuesday in the National Register. The guidelines are designed to give consumers additional information to help them make more informed and healthy nutritional choices.

Food prepared outside the home accounts for nearly half of Americans’ dietary spending and one-third of their caloric intake, according to the FDA. But with two-thirds of adults and one-third of children either overweight or obese in the United States, many consumers simply don’t know or underestimate the amount of calories these foods provide.

Public health advocates hailed the new rules as an important step toward greater consumer empowerment and a healthier nation.

“These regulations are an achievement for public health, and are a positive step toward fighting the high chronic disease rates that plague our nation.” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “By providing the required nutritional information, consumers will have the information they need to make healthier, more educated decisions about their food choices when eating outside the home.”

In a statement, National Restaurant Association president and CEO Dawn Sweeney said the new rules will make nutritional information available in 200,000 restaurants nationwide.

“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 wrote. “We look forward to working with the agency as the implementation period begins and toward helping the industry adjust to the new rules.”

In 1990, the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act required nutrition information be provided on most foods, but restaurant fare and other prepared foods were exempted from the law.

In the years since, state and local governments filled the void by establishing their own labeling requirements. The new FDA rules “will help avoid situations in which a chain restaurant subject to the federal requirements has to meet different requirements in different states,” the FDA wrote in a statement.

But some observers felt the new measures were tougher than expected. Peter J. Larkin, president and CEO of the National Grocers Association, said the sweeping new rules were never intended to include grocery stores.

“Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law,” Larkin wrote in a statement.

“We are disappointed that the FDA’s final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members. NGA will continue to work with Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to address this regulatory overreach,” he wrote.​

The FDA estimates the vending machine guidelines will cost operators “$37.9 million (over 20 years discounted at 7 percent).”

Carla Balakgie, the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s president and CEO, said the rules were palatable to the group’s 1,500 member companies.

“Throughout the process, NAMA has worked with the FDA and Congress to increase their understanding of the relevant challenges faced by small business owners, comprising the majority of the vending and refreshment services industry,” she said. “We appreciate the FDA providing the vending industry with a longer compliance period than other impacted industries.”

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