Soon, it will be impossible to ignore how many calories are in your Bloomin’ Onion. Restaurant menu labeling laws — which may require a dining establishment to disclose anything from calorie content to sodium levels to genetically modified ingredients — have existed, in various forms, at the state and city level for many years. The first federal mandates for menu labeling are a facet of President Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA; Section 4205). Because that act still stands, despite recently renewed discussions to repeal it, those laws become enforceable starting in May.
The rules, which were written by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, apply only to restaurants with 20 or more locations (it also applies to vending machines). Under the mandate, each outlet must post a menu board in clear view of diners. The boards must list the name of every menu item on offer, including options like meal combos, and the calorie counts for each. Menu boards must also display a “succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake.” In establishments where the food is on display, like a self-service buffet or a drink station, calorie counts must be listed on each label.
The menu and calorie display, according to the ACA, is “designed to enable the public to understand, in the context of a total daily diet, the significance of the nutrition information that is provided on the menu board.” As part of this, each menu board must include a statement saying additional nutritional information is available upon request. The only exceptions are condiments, daily specials, and limited-time offers available for fewer than 90 days.
When it was passed in 2010, the ACA gave the FDA the authority to write and implement the final rules for menu labeling; the FDA didn’t release its detailed regulations to the public until December 1, 2014. The rules were challenged several times, they were amended and formally took effect on December 1, 2016, and the FDA is on schedule to enforce compliance beginning on May 5, 2017.
Some chains, like Chipotle and Shake Shack, have already voluntarily installed menu boards listing calorie counts and dietary guidelines messaging in all their stores, but most restaurants have not. In particular, national chains that serve different menu items from region to region, and franchises where the franchisee has control over a portion of the menu are likely still playing catch up, Food Safety News suggests.
The menu labeling rules in the ACA were based upon those enacted in New York City in 2008. The requirements are unpopular with many business owners and operators in New York, in large part because they can be costly: Restaurants don’t just have to pay for the creation and installation of menu boards each time a menu changes, they also have to pay for lab testing to assess the nutritional content of each menu item.
The displays are also surprisingly controversial from a consumer perspective. A 2008 USDA analysis “found no evidence that label use was associated with reduced intake of calories, saturated fat, or cholesterol.” The report suggested that when calorie information was on display, diners had a tendency to ignore it: “People's knowledge about health and nutrition issues has less impact on the diet quality of their food choices when they eat away from home... even dieters choose less healthy options when eating out than when eating at home. These findings suggest that diners may pay less attention to nutritional information when eating out than when shopping for the week's meals.”
Leading food policy advocate Marion Nestle has long been in favor of these rules and of the idea that consumers should have as much information as possible so that they may make informed choices about their diet and health. “The ferocity of lobbying [against the rules],” Nestle wrote in 2015, “suggests that restaurant companies would rather you did not have this information.”
An independent study published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2014 noted that between 2008 and 2010, when calorie information was increasingly found on menus, “the proportion [of diners] who saw and used calorie information tripled, from 8.1% to 24.8%.” Disconcertingly, the study confirmed that “white, higher income, and obese respondents had greater odds of seeing calorie information,” and that “women, higher income groups, and those eating at a fast-food versus a sit-down chain restaurant were more likely to use this information.”
• Obamacare Menu Labeling Requirements Start May 5 [Food Safety News]
• U.S. House Passes Bill to Ease Calorie-Labeling Regulations [E]