Restaurant chains: If we have to list calorie counts, make grocery stores do it, too

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) says it will fight a proposed law that would require chain restaurants to include nutrition information on menu boards -- but would let grocery and convenience stores dodge the requirement for their own prepared food.

"This legislation would broadly exempt chain grocery, convenience stores and other entities that sell restaurant food from providing uniform nutrition information to customers despite that fact that each day thousands of customers purchase meals at these establishments," the NRA said in a statement. "These companies each made strategic decisions to compete directly with their local restaurant community, in this regard, and need to play by the same rules as those with whom they choose to compete."

The nutrition labeling, which would include calorie counts, is actually part of the Affordable Care Act, which specifies that the requirement applies to chains with more than 20 restaurants. The bill reintroduced last Thursday (March 21), referred to as the Commonsense Nutrition Disclosure Act, would exempt grocery and convenience stores from the labeling.

It's easy to understand why the grocery industry wants to avoid what it calculates will be a billion-dollar initial cost if every ready-to-eat item in a chain grocery is included, plus ongoing costs to keep lists updated. And if the calorie-count listing does include everything in a grocery or convenience store, as the NRA thinks it should, how exactly will that be posted? Putting up a computerized kiosk that lets customers scroll through hundreds or thousands of items might work, once all the information has been copied from labels (or, more likely, provided electronically by manufacturers). But is there any point, when it's more conveniently right there on the label?

What's trickier is drawing the line, especially if the original intent is that labeling apply to restaurants. Is that Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) kiosk in the grocery store a restaurant or an exempted part of the grocery business? How about the area near the deli counter that has restaurant-style seating and a sign that says "Cafe"? If a convenience store takes away any place a customer can sit, is it off the hook?

Those aren't idle questions. The exempt-the-grocers bill was introduced last year and didn't pass. If it doesn't get a vote eventually, grocers may have to figure out how to create that endless calorie-count board after all.

For more:

- see this Supermarket News story

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