FDA food menu labeling law to go into effect this year

By Janae Easlon
The Bellingham Business Journal

The menus at some of your favorite food joints will be getting a fresh look.

Restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required to display calorie counts and nutritional facts beginning later this year.

The rule is a result  from provisions of the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Americans eat and drink an average of one-third of their calories outside of the home, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The rule is designed to give the consumers accurate information about what they eat when they go out.

Menus need to be changed by Dec. 1, but the FDA won’t enforce the rule until May 5, 2017.

While the law will affect major chain restaurants around the country — the McDonalds, Burger Kings and Olive Gardens of the world — it will also impact homegrown restaurants in Washington state, including Lynden-based Woods Coffee.

One Washington-based chain won’t be making any major changes — Ivar’s Seafood Bars.

The chain started putting calorie counts next to menu items when King County implemented a similar requirement in 2008.

At that point, Ivar’s displayed calorie information on all of its restaurants even outside King County, said Jim Werth, marketing director of Ivar’s Seafood.

“It just made good sense to carry it system-wide beyond the King County since we expected it to become national in the near future, but also because our customers requested it,” Werth said.

King County was one of the first counties in the nation to make a requirement that chain restaurants display calorie counts.

But it has caught on: now several states require menu labeling.

Those are Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Maine.

The federal requirement will supersede local and state statutes.

The FDA developed the calorie labeling rule after several hearings.

The agency also received more than 400 comments from consumers.

Under the new rule, chains with 20 or more locations that do business under the same name and have a main menu must label calories and nutritional information, said FDA spokeswoman Lauren Kotwicki in an email.

Any food or drink on the menu for more than 90 days out of a year must have calories listed.

Market test items on a menu less than 90 days, temporary/seasonal items on a menu less than 60 days and alcoholic beverages do not have to follow the regulations.

Kotwicki declined to speculate about how the federal agency would enforce the rule or what would happen if a chain refused to comply with posting calorie counts and nutritional information.

Now, many restaurants and food retailers are in the beginnings of changing over their menus.

Woods Coffee, based in Lynden, Washington, is opening an 18th location in Bellevue Square in Bellevue.

Woods CEO Wes Herman said he expects to have more than 20 locations in the coming year, meaning his company will have to comply with the FDA regulations.

Herman anticipated the need for nutritional information of Wood’s menu, he said.

“It is not that abnormal of a request,” Herman said. “We are prepared to do that, and the benefit is we have the information readily available.”

Food and drinks sold at Woods already have been tested for nutritional values, he said.

Still, redesigning all of his location’s menus will be a significant cost, Herman said.

The coffee shop company rebranded and changed all of its menus just last March.

Now, Herman has to do it all over again.

Companies likes Ivar’s are using resources like EHSA Research, Elizabeth Stewart Hands and Associates, to evaluate staple food items for nutritional values.

Established in 1981, EHSA released The Food Processor Nutrition Analysis software after three years of starting. The software provides companies with an overall evaluation of nutritional values for products.

The EHSA provides quotes on the costs of the software on its website, http://www.esha.com/contact/food-processor-quote-request/.

In addition, EHSA has a database that is ever changing with new dietary information, according to the EHSA website.

To help businesses ease into the changes, the FDA released a guide called “Labeling Guide for Restaurants and Retail Establishments Selling Away-From-Home Foods – Part II.”

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association based in Olympia, said federal
requirements for menu labeling is a good opportunity for standardization of
products within the restaurant industry.

“Restaurants are made for people and by people,” he said. “With this comes variance in ingredients behind the scenes.” Implementing federal rules, Anton said, brings predictability in nutritional values of dishes sold.

The Washington Restaurant Association has information on menu labeling on their website like the FDA. “What we were focused on is how to get prepared,” Anton said. “Time until compliance allows for restaurants to do that.”

In his opinion, the best way for businesses preparing for the change is to learn where they are at and make small steps. “We are all going to learn from this,” he said.

The bumps along the way from switching menu boards started with the font size of the calorie counts, said Ivar ’s director of recruiting and training Patrick Yearout.

“It was challenging at first because menus only have so much space to be distinctive from the prices for guests to see,” he said.

Ivar’s complied with the calorie and nutritional requirements in 2007  in order to make information available for guests.

“First thing we noticed is sometimes the calories would be confused with the prices,” Yearout said. An entree could be 650 calories and a guest would think it was $6.50, he said.

For companies looking to redesign menus and provide nutritional brochures, he suggests planning it with other re-branding or price increases for products to cut the costs.

“It turns out, when we added the required information, we had to change the menu boards anyway with new products,” he said. “To make the changes is a cost we would have had to pay anyway.”

Ivar’s customers seemed to have made a collective shrug about the calorie count information. The Seattle-based chain uses Customerville, a survey website for companies to gauge its customers impressions on its services.

Out of the thousands of comments in Ivar’s most recent survey, three comments asked about calorie counts overall.

“A lot of customer’s concerns about calories can be solved in the store,” Yearout said. “Most comments about nutrition do not get to the corporate level.”


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