WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2015 - Supermarkets, pizza chains and convenience stores have banded together to try to take the bite out of new menu labeling regulations before they take effect. 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved, 36-12, a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for those businesses to comply with the labeling requirements and also block consumers from suing any retail establishments, including restaurants, for violations of the rules. 

Under the bill, pizza delivery chains such as Domino’s would be allowed to post calorie counts only on their websites instead of in stores. Supermarket delis and convenience stores wouldn’t have to label every product they sell, but could instead post calorie counts on menu boards.

“If menu labeling is going to be required at grocery stores, then let’s at least build some flexibility so it is worthwhile for consumers and workable in store environments,” said Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, whose members include grocery giants such as Wal-Mart, Kroger and Safeway.

Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rogers, a Washington Republican who is cosponsoring the bill, said the existing rules were “fundamentally impractical and unnecessarily expensive.”

Nine Democrats voted for the bill, which now goes to the House floor for debate. Its future in the Senate is unclear. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Angus King, I-Maine, introduced a companion bill (S 2217) in October, but no hearing has been scheduled. 

The Food and Drug Administration developed the regulations at the direction of the Affordable Care Act and originally planned to start enforcing the rules next month but pushed the compliance deadline to December 2016. 

Despite the delay, House appropriators are pushing to include a provision in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that would bar FDA from enforcing the rules. Even though the provision would expire Sept. 30, it could be extended beyond that through either the fiscal 2017 spending bill or through a continuing resolution. 

The restaurant industry is largely supportive of the labeling rules - which apply to chains with 20 or more locations - and Democrats who support the labeling requirements say they are critical to combatting obesity. 

The top Democrat on the House committee, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, said that rolling back the labeling requirements “is not only shortsighted but it is costly for the health of our nation.”

Another supporter of the labeling rules, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., suggested there are gender differences over the importance of calorie counts, although the bill’s main cosponsors are women - Rogers and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif.

“As a woman and someone who does appreciate calorie counts, I would encourage you to support something that will provide accurate information,” Schakowsky said. 

Like what you see on the Agri-Pulse website? See even more ag and rural policy news when you sign up for a four-week free trial Agri-Pulse subscription.]

There is almost certain to be a debate on the House floor over whether to keep the liability protection in the bill. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., voted for the bill after agreeing to wait until the measure reaches the floor to challenge the lawsuit exemption. A consumer “deserves the opportunity to seek relief in a court of law,” he said. 

Many health advocacy organizations have urged lawmakers to leave the labeling rules alone. They say, among other things, that the bill would allow restaurants and other establishments to arbitrarily determine serving sizes for menu items

The bill “is overly broad in its approach to address narrower concerns from the pizza industry and other food establishments that are better resolved through guidance,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.