FDA Finishing Food-Labeling Rules, And Some Useful Ideas Will Be Left Out

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) puts the final touches on rules for adding calorie labeling to restaurant menus, a bill to simplify those rules is languishing in a Congressional committee—and that may mean a missed opportunity for a big improvement.

The "Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act," which was introduced in the House of Representatives in March, would exempt most grocery and convenience stores from the labeling requirements by changing the definition of a "restaurant or similar retail food establishment" so it's limited to retail establishments that get more than 50 percent of their total revenue from selling prepared food. The bill would also let restaurants where most orders come in from off-premises customers provide "a remote-access menu, such as one available on the internet, instead of an on-premises menu."

Cutting grocery deli areas and convenience stores out of the law would theoretically cut compliance costs for those retailers dramatically. It would also represent a big political win for grocers, whose lobbying arm, the Food Marketing Institute, estimated the first-year cost of compliance at more than $1 billion. But the simplification bill appears unlikely to pass, in part because the National Restaurant Association doesn't want its members to be the only ones who have to do the labeling.

That's where the focus is likely to be, and that's a pity, because the remote-access part of the bill is actually based on a clever idea. As things currently stand, the FDA guidelines will let restaurants use ranges to describe calories in cases where food can have options that change the calorie counts. That means there's a single value for a never-change-anything Big Mac, but a wildly useless range for a pizza where customization is common.

There's no special reason that pizza chains couldn't replace those useless ranges with something more specific by means of a smartphone app or e-commerce site widget. In practice, that would also be much more practical and useful for in-store use. It's hard enough to get consumers to pay attention to calorie counts in any case. But an interactive app that lets customers visually create their own custom pizzas, sandwiches or other food items while constantly displaying the updated calorie count? That seems like something that matches the spirit of the law much more effectively than a dry list on the restaurant wall.

For more:

- See this Bloomberg View story

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