WASHINGTON, May 18, 2015 – The Food and Drug Administration’s requirement that restaurants start posting calorie counts later this year is raising concerns across the political spectrum.
Some 32 senators, including Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel's ranking member, have signed a letter calling for a one-year delay in the labeling regulations, which are scheduled to take effect Dec. 1. The committee oversees FDA.
The letter bolsters lobbying efforts by the supermarket industry and others to delay implementation of the requirement, which applies to grocery store delis and vending machines as well as to chain restaurants.
FDA issued the labeling rule last November, but the agency has yet to issue guidance for complying with the requirements, the senators noted.
“While we recognize the benefit of improved access to nutritional information for consumers, we are concerned that the lack of clear and consistent guidance from the agency will make it difficult, confusing, and burdensome for businesses, particularly smaller businesses, to implement the new requirements,” the senators wrote.
The letter doesn’t directly criticize the labeling regulations themselves but alludes to concerns that have been raised by industry: “We are concerned that there are still outstanding questions regarding the details of how the final rule will be applied to certain covered entities, specific types of restaurant-type food, standard menu items, menu boards, and other key areas covered by the final rule.”
The labeling rule, which was a requirement of the 5-year-old Affordable Care Act, applies to companies with 20 or more locations and includes supermarket delis.
Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that writes FDA’s annual spending bill, didn’t sign the letter but has told Agri-Pulse that the fiscal 2016 legislation will address concerns that the industry doesn’t have time to comply by the Dec. 1 deadline.
He won’t have to look far for key Democratic support. Also signing the letter was Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee, one of 13 Democratic signers.
Consumer advocates are divided on what FDA should do. Chris Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America said the industry has already had enough time. “I don’t think we need to wait another year. FDA can certainly provide greater clarity if needed between now and December.”
But Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the request for a delay was reasonable, given that FDA is probably going to have to issue industry guidance and then take public comment on it.
“After working on menu labeling for over a decade, we are anxious to get calorie labeling to the public. However, with more time, supermarkets and convenience stores will not have any excuses to lobby to be exempt from providing calorie information to their customers,” she said. “These senators are asking that supermarkets be given more time to comply, not to be exempted from providing calories for their prepared foods.”
A spokeswoman for FDA declined comment on the senators’ request for a delay, saying the agency would respond directly to them.
The National Restaurant Association, which represents chains, supports a national labeling requirement and didn’t take a position on the request for a delay.
“Some of our members are ready to comply and some of our members still need more time. We understand the senators' prerogative to ask for more time as we are still awaiting guidance from FDA,” said the group’s vice president of government relations, Dan Roehl.