Proponents and critics of a new federal regulation that will require menus to list calorie counts are calling for a one-year delay to the rule's Dec. 1 implementation date. That's about all they could agree on Thursday during a congressional hearing.
Supporters and opponents alike feel the industry needs more time to adopt the new labeling requirements. Some hope a delay will allow lawmakers to make changes that could effectively exempt some food-related businesses.
In its final rule issued last November, the Food and Drug Administration requires that, beginning Dec. 1, restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations post calorie counts for the items they serve on their menus and menu boards. The regulation would affect movie theaters, amusement parks, stadiums and grocery and convenience stores that offer ready-to-eat items.
But proposed legislation introduced in April would effectively exempt non-restaurant businesses that sell prepared food from having to provide calorie counts on those items. Under the proposed Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, (H.R. 2017) businesses whose revenue from prepared-food sales makes up less than half of their overall revenue would not have to comply with the regulation.
The bill has pitted convenience stores, pizzerias and supermarkets against public-health advocates and restaurants who argue that making such exceptions would only serve to undermine the rule's goal of helping consumers make more informed nutritional choices.
“The new labeling regulation is intended to benefit both businesses and consumers by focusing on all establishments that serve restaurant-type food, not just a select few,” said Karen Raskopf, chief communications officer for Dunkin' Brands Group, the parent company of Dunkin' Donuts. She spoke on behalf of the National Restaurant Association at a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health. “The benefits of nutrition labeling are important, no matter the size of the menu or the percentage of sales from food.”
Representatives from the convenience store, pizzeria and supermarket industries counter that the FDA rule as currently written would be too difficult and expensive to implement. They say independent store owners would be hardest hit.
“The food operations of convenience stores are very different from that of restaurants, yet the FDA's final ruling was geared toward the chain-restaurant model,” according to Sonya Yates Hubbard, CEO of E-Z Mart Stores, who spoke before the committee on behalf of the National Association of Convenience Stores. “We want to provide our customers with useful information and H.R. 2017 does not roll back the regulations but instead gives us the flexibility we need in order to do this.”
Bill supporters insist they are in favor of providing nutritional information, but want to do so in a way that is more conducive to their business model.
“We are not seeking an exemption,” said Lynn Liddle, and executive vice president with the Domino's pizza chain, and chair of the American Pizza Community coalition. She added that her group wants to provide information to its customers in a way that does not make small business pay for materials customers won't see or use.
Lawmakers stayed true to party lines when sharing their views of the Common Sense Nutrition Act, despite declarations that the regulation was a bipartisan effort. Republicans spoke out in favor of the H.R. 2017, saying the FDA rule would harm small businesses, while Democrats raised concerns over the public health implications that might evolve if exemptions were given.
The FDA estimates that as much as one-third of Americans' total caloric intake comes from eating outside of the home. Some believe that habit is encouraged by the convenience of prepared foods.
Nutrition advocates have argued that displaying the number of calories beside a food item on a menu would give consumers the opportunity to make healthier choices. But the body of evidence in support of that notion has been mixed, with studies that find increased consumer awareness about calorie counts have only led to a minimal changes in eating behavior.