FDA Unveils Draft Guidelines for Mandatory Calorie Counts on Menus

But Restaurants, Vending Machine Cos. Given Extra Time Before Implementation

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Calorie counts for fast feeders and others are going national, but not just yet.

Restaurant companies and vending-machine companies were given a little extra time on Tuesday to circle the wagons and figure out the next step in complying with government-mandated rules requiring the posting of calorie counts and other nutritional information.

The U.S. Food and Drug administration issued its draft guidelines on how calorie information should be displayed, but decided against immediate implementation of the rules and instead asked for public comment. The FDA has until March 2011 to put the new rules into effect, or one year after the health-care legislation was signed into law this past March. The nutritional-disclosure requirement was part of the law. (The FDA has posted guidance for the industry on the web.)

At issue, say industry advocates, is money.

"One of our goals is to minimize the economic burden on the industry while providing nutrition information on a uniform basis for our customers," said Dan Roehl, public-affairs specialist for the Washington-based National Restaurant Association, which he said supports the establishment of one, uniform national standard for nutrition disclosure. "We'd like to see it similar to what package goods have at grocery stores."

According to the FDA guidelines, restaurants with 20 or more locations -- think chains such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and even higher-end establishments such as Bonefish Grill and Cheesecake Factory -- are required to post the calorie information in the same-size type as either the menu item or the price, whichever is larger.

Health-care advocates say nutritional disclosure will help combat the obesity problem in the U.S. and make diners better aware of their food choices. New York City made the disclosure a law two years ago; some chains, such as Subway and Panera Bread, are already implementing the calorie-count info nationwide.

Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden, has begun providing nutritional information on websites and mobile devices.

"We're waiting for the final interpretation on exactly what it looks like and how it should be printed in the menu, but Darden was one of the companies that helped lead the passage of the national standard so we're very much in favor of it," said Rich Jeffers, spokesman for Darden Restaurants. "In terms of whether it's an extra cost to us, we reprint our menus twice a year so we're doing that anyway. It's too early to say if there will be other things that impact us."

It also remains to be seen how this plays out for vending machine companies. Vendors with 20 or more machines will have to comply with the new requirements, which include displaying the nutritional information in a "clear and conspicuous" manner so that consumers know exactly how many calories are in that Hershey bar they just spent eight quarters on.

"To label each machine would be pricey," said Eric Amundson, VP at BayCo Vending Co., South San Francisco. "That's what the debate is going to be. Maybe it will be a touch screen that displays the information at will. The logical thing would be to do that, to have a memory stick in each machine to display the information for each item."

But, Mr. Amundson cautioned, "I'm sure the vending industry will lean on the manufacturers of the product for help, but my guess is that it will increase prices."

The National Automatic Merchandising Association, the trade group for the vending industry, said it is preparing comments and will call on the FDA to allow flexibility in how disclosure can take place, such as one menu with calorie counts for an entire bank of machines; permit options for posting calorie information that allows multiple products to be placed; and provide legal protection for minor and inadvertent mistakes in calorie disclosure.

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