Menu labeling is a thorny issue

You probably won’t be seeing calorie counts on most restaurant chain menus, in supermarkets or on vending machines anytime soon.

Although the 2010 health care law charged the Food and Drug Administration with making that happen, writing a new menu labeling law “has gotten extremely thorny,” says FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

The problem: who should be covered by the law? And lots of people are lobbying hard to be exempt from the requirements.

While the restaurant industry has signed on to the idea and helped to write the new regulations, supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers that sell prepared food say they want no part of it.

The FDA has tentatively said the rules are due this spring, but that may be optimistic as the food industry and regulators continue to haggle over how they will be written.

Rules proposed in 2011 would require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations, along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains, to clearly post the calorie count for each item on their menus. Additional nutritional information would have to be available upon request. The rules would also apply to vending machines if calorie information isn’t already visible on the package.

Exempted are movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys and others whose primary business is not to sell food. Alcohol would also be exempt.

Supermarkets and convenience stores are looking for similar exemptions in the final rules. Representatives for those industries say it could cost them up to a billion dollars to put the rules in place — costs that would be passed on to consumers.

The rules, they contend, could cover thousands of items in each store, going beyond the prepared foods to cut fruit, bakery items like pies and loaves of bread and other store items not already packaged and labeled. That could mean each store would have to send those items to labs to be tested, do paperwork to justify the ingredient, send nutritional information for each item to the FDA and then create signage and train employees to use it.

Nutrition lobbyist Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the packaged foods industry also grumbled when its labeling requirements were first implemented. She says supermarkets and convenience stores should be included because they are offering more and more prepared foods.

The idea of menu labeling is to make sure that customers can see the calorie information as they are ordering. Many restaurants currently post nutritional information in a hallway, on a hamburger wrapper or on their website.

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