FDA issues draft guidance for calorie menu labeling

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2015 - The Food and Drug Administration today released a draft guidance document to help chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations comply with a new rule that requires calorie information be listed on menus and menu boards.

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Businesses have until Dec. 1, 2016, to comply with the rule, which was required under the Affordable Care Act. The original deadline was this December but in July FDA extended the compliance date by an additional year to give businesses more time. FDA stressed that the document is still a draft and welcomed comments from stakeholders. Those comments will be considered before the guidance is finalized, according to Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

“We appreciate the extensive input we have received from stakeholders throughout the process of establishing requirements for menu labeling in certain restaurants and other retail food establishments,” Mayne said in a statement.

“The guidance document responds to many of the most frequently asked questions that the agency has received to date in emails and during meetings with and presentations to representatives of the range of establishments covered by the new menu labeling rule. These interactions have been invaluable.”

The guidance notes that covered establishments include chain bakeries, cafeterias, delicatessens and coffee shops as well as convenience stores that sell restaurant-type foods. The rule does NOT apply to, say, a community coffee shop or regional bakery with less than 20 locations, food trucks, sidewalk carts and schools serving meals under the National School Lunch or Breakfast programs. Trains and airplanes are also exempt.

Calorie and other nutrition information must be provided for “standard menu items,” that is restaurant type foods that are routinely included on a menu or menu board or routinely offered as self-service food or food on display, according to the guidance. Condiments are exempt, as are menu items only offered for sale on a particular day, such as a daily special and temporary menu items. Foods that appear on a menu for less than 60 days per calendar year, such as a St. Patrick's Day smoothie offered around March 17 are also excluded.

However, if a covered establishment makes a health or nutrient content claim for any food item, information backing up that claim must be provided - on a counter card, sign, menu, electronic device or by similar means.

Caloric information for alcoholic beverages that are standard menu items must be provided, the draft guidance notes, although there are several different formats. Examples are provided. In addition, many issues are handled in a question and answer format.

Mayne promised that FDA would work “flexibly and cooperatively” with companies making good faith efforts to comply with the new rule.

“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,” she said, adding, “That's a worthy outcome of which we can all be proud.”

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