by Marion Nestle
Apr 2 2011

FDA finally does proposed rules for calorie labeling

Federal agencies love releasing potentially controversial proposals on Friday afternoons when reporters and everyone else is heading for the weekend. So that’s when the FDA released its week-late proposed rules for calorie labeling in restaurants.   There are two sets of proposed rules, one for restaurants, and one for vending machines.

Most of the proposed rules are pretty much as expected. They will apply to restaurants and fast-food places, bakeries, groceries, convenience stores, and coffee shops that are part of chains with more than 20 locations nationwide.  They also will apply to vending machines from companies with more than 20.

But here’s an eyebrow-raiser. The rules will not apply to movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys, and other establishments whose primary purpose is not to sell food. Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.

An exemption for movie theaters seems like a bizarre oversight. If ever there was a place where calorie labeling might be useful, try movie theater supersized sodas, popcorn, and candy.

In FDA-speak, an outlet is defined as primarily in the food business if it says it is, or if more than half its floor space is used to sell food. I can’t wait to see those drug stores getting out their tape measures.

Fortunately, these are proposed rules and you are more than welcome to comment on whether you think these exempted places should be required to opt in (I vote yes).  The FDA press release in the link above gives information about how to comment.  Note that there are two codes, one for restaurants and one for vending machines.

A couple of other points caught my eye:

Ranges: “Calories for variable menu items, such as combination meals, would be displayed in ranges. An example of a combination meal could be a choice of sandwich, side dish and beverage.”

Like how? Chipotle, for example, is happy to post calories in absurdly large ranges (200 to 800, for example). Do such places get to keep doing this?

Preemption of state and local laws: these rules will take precedent except that “State and local governments can establish nutrition labeling requirements for establishments not covered by the new law or regulations.”

Does this mean like movie theaters?

Alcohol: the rules do not apply to alcohol beverages because FDA does not regulate alcohol.  Treasury does (go figure).

Take every opportunity to comment!  The comment period opens April 6.

Here are some press accounts of the proposed rules:

Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post (I’m quoted)

William Neuman in the New York Times deals with the preemption issue.

But local governments would be free to create laws for establishments that were left outside the federal rules.  New York City’s labeling law already requires movie theater chains to post calorie information. It also requires calorie labeling for alcoholic beverages listed on menus at restaurant chains.

  • Doc Mudd

    What’s the big twist over movie theaters? I honestly can’t remember the last time I was i one. Is there some new kind of mass exodus to movie theaters no one has told me about?

    Might better expand the calorie posting to every restaurant, even the high-brow food snob lairs. Now, that’s where you can really get your load on without paying any attention. Heck, a tablespoon of snobby extra virgin olive oil adds 120 calories, for starters.

    “20 establishments” is an arbitrary number, and much too large…like 19 too large.

  • I’d like to know what I am eating at fine dining establishments as well – especially considering I never eat at chains…

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  • Anthro

    It’s much easier to estimate the calories you are eating at a high end restaurant because good restaurants serve real food, not food-like products. The menu will state the ingredients–grilled salmon with lemon and dill (or whatever). When the plate comes, you can tell how much there is. A serving is the size of a deck of cards, so that’s how much you should eat (take the rest home).

    This is very different from fast food, which is “produced” in a factory and then “re-cooked” in an outlet store. There is no way to look at the object and estimate the caloric content.

    All oils have about the same calories, so what is the point of disparaging olive oil, which is more healthful than butter? No one should eat a whole lot of either is the point–and a good reason to eat most of your food at home (assuming you eat real food at home and not the pre-packaged fare that is widely available at any supermarket).

  • Melissa

    I am trying to follow the directions to leave a comment on the proposed rule, but the search function is not finding the docket number. Are the comments closed already?

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  • JudyThomas

    Even though the readers of this blog might not eat fast food, many, many people do. I do not think that posting calories actually does much to change actual behavior, but it is good to have the option to know what you are ingesting calorie-wise of you want to.

  • Is there any estimate as to when the rules will go into effect? (Love and appreciate your work)

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