FDA's New Calorie Rules Are Broader Than Expected, Including Movie Theaters and Alcohol

Theaters Increasingly Serve Restaurant-Style Food Such as Pizza and Hot Dogs

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You may not have wanted to know how many calories were in your tub of movie popcorn, and theater operators certainly didn't want to tell you, but soon there'll be no choice.

New FDA rules announced Tuesday that require restaurants, similar retail establishments, movie theaters, amusement parts and even vending machines nationwide to list calorie counts on menu boards.

The rules, covering establishments with 20 or more locations, are broader than the FDA initially proposed in some ways. Movie theaters, which have been increasingly offering restaurant-type food such as pizza and hot dogs, were not expected to be included after fierce industry opposition.

In perhaps the biggest surprise, the rules also encompass alcohol, which was not part of the earlier proposal. Drinks listed on menus will now have to provide calorie counts, although mixed drinks will be exempt. The FDA said it will provide flexibility in how establishments meet this provision.

Impacted restaurants and other retail outlets will have one year to comply with the rules, which were required by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and will be required to clearly and conspicuously display calorie information for standard items on menus and menu boards, next to the name or price of the item, the FDA said. Vending machine operators will have two years to comply.

Affected establishments will also be required to provide written information about total calories, total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars and protein.

McRib exempt?
Limited-time offers -- a favorite tactic in fast food to bring customers in the doors -- are not covered by the labeling requirements. Nor are daily specials or condiments for general use that are typically available on a counter or table.

"Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home and people today expect clear information about the products they consume," said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, in a statement. "Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families."

Public-health advocates such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have long fought for more readily available nutritional information as a tool to fight obesity. "Menu labeling is the biggest advance in providing nutrition information to consumers since the law that required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods was implemented 20 years ago," CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan said. "It will soon seem strange that once it was possible to go into a Chick-fil-A or a Denny's and not see calories on menus and menu boards. We hope that small chains and independent restaurants provide the same information voluntarily."

How the final ruling will impact fast-food marketing remains to be seen, but chains such as McDonald's have been experimenting with marketing calorie counts in recent years, and many chains such as Chick-Fil-A had already been updating their menu boards to include calorie counts. In 2012, the Golden Arches marketed a "Favorites under 400 calories" platform as part of its broader Olympics marketing.

Uncertain impact
Some skeptics said that the rules won't have any real measurable impact on consumers who aren't interested in reducing their calorie counts. "Most national chains have already implemented the menu labeling rules and consumers are accustomed to seeing the calorie counts on restaurant menu boards," said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant-industry analyst at NPD, in an email. "Those consumers who are calorie or health conscious will take note and order accordingly, and those who are not will order what they want regardless of the calories."

The FDA also said that in order to help consumers understand the significance of the calorie information and put it into context of a daily diet, menus and menu boards will include the statement: "2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary."

For the final ruling, the FDA said it considered more than 1,100 comments from stakeholders and consumers in developing the rules. The FDA ultimately narrowed the scope of foods covered by the rule to more clearly focus on restaurant-type food, it said. It also will ensure that calorie counts for pizzas be listed by the slice, rather than the whole pizza, and provided establishments additional time to comply with the rule.

The FDA's initial draft guidelines in 2010 were followed by a public comment period, and later by proposed guidelines, though the FDA had been relatively mum on a final ruling since. Some individual chains opposed the ruling, but the National Restaurant Industry supported a uniform national ruling, rather than state-by-state regulations that would vary widely.

"We believe that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers," said the National Restaurant Association in a statement.