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4 Ways New FDA Calorie-Labeling Rules Should Change

Newly proposed rules would require menus at many restaurants nationwide to include calorie counts, but there are big loopholes.


Federal agencies love releasing potentially controversial proposals on Friday afternoons when reporters and everyone else is heading for the weekend. So that's when the FDA released its week-late proposed rules for calorie labeling in restaurants. There are two sets of proposed rules, one for restaurants, and one for vending machines.

Most of the proposed rules are pretty much as expected. They will apply to restaurants and fast-food places, bakeries, groceries, convenience stores, and coffee shops that are part of chains with more than 20 locations nationwide. They also will apply to vending machines from companies with more than 20.

soda belly

But here's an eyebrow-raiser. The rules will not apply to movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys, and other establishments whose primary purpose is not to sell food. Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.

An exemption for movie theaters seems like a bizarre oversight. If ever there was a place where calorie labeling might be useful, try movie theater supersized sodas, popcorn, and candy.

In FDA-speak, an outlet is defined as primarily in the food business if it says it is, or if more than half its floor space is used to sell food. I can't wait to see those drug stores getting out their tape measures.

Fortunately, these are proposed rules and you are more than welcome to comment on whether you think these exempted places should be required to opt in (I vote yes). The FDA press release in the link above gives information about how to comment. Note that there are two codes, one for restaurants and one for vending machines.

A couple of other points caught my eye:

Ranges: "Calories for variable menu items, such as combination meals, would be displayed in ranges. An example of a combination meal could be a choice of sandwich, side dish and beverage."

Like how? Chipotle, for example, is happy to post calories in absurdly large ranges (200 to 800, for example). Do such places get to keep doing this?

Preemption of state and local laws: these rules will take precedent except that "State and local governments can establish nutrition labeling requirements for establishments not covered by the new law or regulations."

Does this mean like movie theaters?

Alcohol: the rules do not apply to alcohol beverages because FDA does not regulate alcohol. Treasury does (go figure).

Take every opportunity to comment! The comment period opens April 6.

Here are some press accounts of the proposed rules:

Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post (I'm quoted)

William Neuman in the New York Times deals with the preemption issue.

But local governments would be free to create laws for establishments that were left outside the federal rules. New York City's labeling law already requires movie theater chains to post calorie information. It also requires calorie labeling for alcoholic beverages listed on menus at restaurant chains.

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Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle

Noted author Marion Nestle is a Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of What to Eat.
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What To Eat: Expert advice on food, health and nutrition issues that are in the news.
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