US FDA Issues Calorie Count Rules: What That Means For Digital Menu Vendors

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Photo: Wand Corporation

After years of making noises about it, and lots of uncertainty about go or no go, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has today finalized two rules requiring that calorie information be listed on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants, similar retail food establishments and vending machines.

The rules apply to sites with 20 or more locations, and are intended to provide American consumers with more nutritional information about the foods they eat outside of the home. The rules are are required by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home and people today expect clear information about the products they consume,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. in the announcement. “Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”

The release continues:

The menu labeling final rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments if they are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items. Covered food establishments will be required to clearly and conspicuously display calorie information for standard items on menus and menu boards, next to the name or price of the item. Seasonal menu items offered for sale as temporary menu items, daily specials and condiments for general use typically available on a counter or table are exempt from the labeling requirements.

Some states, localities and various large restaurant chains are already doing their own forms of menu labeling. The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the law establishing nutrition labeling on most foods, did not cover nutrition labeling for restaurants and other ready-to-eat foods. In the years that followed, states and cities created their own labeling requirements for such foods. These federal standards will help avoid situations in which a chain restaurant subject to the federal requirements has to meet different requirements in different states.

The FDA considered more than 1,100 comments from stakeholders and consumers in developing these rules. In response to comments, the FDA narrowed the scope of foods covered by the rule to more clearly focus on restaurant-type food, made other adjustments such as ensuring the flexibility for multi-serving dishes like pizza to be labeled by the slice rather than as a whole pie, and provided establishments additional time to comply with the rule.

In addition, the menu labeling final rule now includes certain alcoholic beverages served in covered food establishments and listed on the menu, but still provides flexibility in how establishments meet this provision. The majority of comments supported including alcohol because of the impact on public health. The menu labeling rule also includes food facilities in entertainment venue chains such as movie theaters and amusement parks.

Restaurants and similar retail food establishments will have one year to comply with the menu labeling requirements.

To help consumers understand the significance of the calorie information in the context of a total daily diet, under the rule, menus and menu boards will include the statement:

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

The menu labeling final rule also requires covered establishments to provide, upon consumer request and as noted on menus and menu boards, written nutrition information about total calories, total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars and protein.

The vending machine final rule requires operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines to disclose calorie information for food sold from vending machines, subject to certain exceptions. Vending machine operators will have two years to comply with the requirements.

The two final rules are available in the Federal Register:

So why is a digital signage blog covering this?

Software and display companies have been going hard at the fast food and fast casual restaurant business for several years now, making the case that switching menu boards from analog print to fully digital would not only give them instant pricing and promotion flexibility, but also set operators up for the when and if moment of the FDA enforcing calorie information guidelines.

All that additional information on menu boards, in print, will add a lot of time and cost to keep accurate and current. With digital, done properly, it’s just more programmatic calls to a pricing system or other data repository. Tweak a menu item to reduce calories and it’s an instant, zero-cost change, versus ALL the cost and time associated with printing new menu posters and getting them in place.

Is this a big moment for digital signage vendors?

Maybe. Maybe not. The calorie count thing has been a selling point for several years now, and there are dozens of vendors chasing that vertical market. So the QASRs have heard that argument, endlessly. It’s also a vertical that’s getting built out. Where three years ago seeing digital menu boards was a point of interest for me, I now see them everywhere – from major chains to one-offs.

Then again, this is one of those use-cases where digital makes a particularly strong argument.

Another interesting and potentially BIG wrinkle: Large grocery store chains that sell prepared foods, like meals to go for one person, will also need to put food labeling in place. Not that many grocers, at least that I’ve seen, are doing anything like that in their deli and fresh meals areas, and now they’ll have to.