Restaurant chains with 20 or more units will have to provide calorie counts for standard menu items by Dec. 1, 2016, based on the Food and Drug Administration’s latest draft guidance for the long-awaited menu labeling regulations.
The rules — which were required as part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — cover any chain that sells restaurant-style food. Chain restaurants are included in the rules, but so are chain movie theaters, bowling alleys, amusement parks and grocery stores.
The FDA will continue to take comments on the regulations.
“As a result of these efforts, consumers will have ready access to calorie information they currently may not have to help them make healthy decisions,” Dr. Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement. “That’s a worthy outcome of which we can all be proud.”
The rules cover only standard menu items that regularly appear on menus at restaurant chains with 20 or more locations. The rules do not cover small chains, schools, hospital patient cafeterias, food trucks or food carts.
Chains covered under the rules will have to include the calorie counts of standard items on menus and have other nutritional information available.
The rule does not cover temporary menu items, which appear for 60 days during the year or less. So chains won’t have to publish calorie counts about limited-time offers unless they use a nutritional claim. In that case, the chain must provide information to customers on request to back up those claims. For instance, according to the document, a chain that offers a low-fat St. Patrick’s Day Smoothie would have to provide evidence of its low-fat content.
If the smoothie were then to be promoted to the regular menu, the chain would not have to provide that information because, according to the document, the nutritional information and calorie content would provide that information.
Custom orders and food served as part of market tests for less than 90 days are also exempt, as are condiments such as ketchup that are offered for general use. Alcoholic drinks are covered if they are on the menu, mixed drinks or rail drinks prepared by a bartender and not on the menu are exempt. Self-service food is also exempt.
In general, according to the guidance, an advertisement don’t count as a “menu” unless that advertisement is used as a method for the customer to order an item. For instance, according to the guidance, a coupon for a specific pizza order with a phone number to make that order could be considered a menu — and would require a calorie count. If that coupon was attached to a menu that already included to calorie count, then the coupon wouldn’t need to repeat the calorie count.
The menu needs to include calorie counts for the full menu item as it’s typically prepared, per unit — say, a slice of pizza.
Catering operations must also list calorie counts on their menus, either for the entire platter of food being sold or on a per-unit basis.
Calorie counts must be listed next to the item on the menu, or the price, in a font at least the same size as the price or the item.
Restaurant chains have long pushed for a nationwide menu labeling law amid concerns about state and local rules that could make it more difficult for them to broadly comply. The rules were included in the same law that made the Affordable Care Act possible. The federal government has been working on those rules ever since, routinely publishing drafts and updating them.
In July, after a push by trade associations, including some representing the grocery industry, the FDA delayed implementation of the rule by another year to give more companies time to comply.
As it is, many chains have already started labeling their menus with calorie counts in anticipation of the rules, including Starbucks, McDonald’s and Panera Bread.