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Analyze That

Analyze That

Food and Drug Administration rules on menu labeling requirements have jumped from the talk stage to immediate action.

Disclaimer: This article is meant for general informational purposes. Operators with specific questions should seek counsel.

For an estimated 200,000 foodservice locations, nutritional composition of menu items must be posted by December 1. Definitely time to get those recipes in order.

And so it begins, the Food and Drug Administration Menu Labeling Rule, a ponderous document as fat as a big-city phone book, filled with what some describe as mind-numbing challenges for the industry and what others say is opportunity to better deliver on changing consumer preferences. Either way, restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name and offering for sale what is substantially the same menu, must fully comply when the December 1, 2015 deadline arrives. (Whether the deadline is extended remains in question at press time. Some believe it should be moved back so that all questions and concerns can be properly addressed.)

It will be no easy feat, asking operators to carefully calculate the nutritional makeup of most everything on their menus — burgers and sauces, pilafs, pizzas, burritos, made-to-order sandwiches, strip steaks and coconut-fried shrimp. Combo meals must be calculated and ditto the margaritas and ice-cream sundaes — everything from A to Z. To deliver on the posted counts, cooks must be trained to execute with full consistency to the printed recipes, a task that’s easier said than done. No more adding a tablespoon of oil or salt when the formulation calls for just two teaspoons and woe be to the bartender who pours with a heavy hand; cocktails, too, fall under the rules. And suppliers must be drawn tightly into the process; calculations that are based on an eight-ounce baked potato must closely cleave to that spec. According to the FDA, there is full expectation that the data will always be accurate, with no latitude for lapses in product availability or temporary substitutions.

The Power to Choose

After watching the chain-restaurant industry grapple with a grab bag of state and local labeling ordinances, Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, welcomes the FDA rules. “The National Restaurant Association strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information to consumers to empower them to make the best choices for their dietary needs,” she said in a statement issued in December.

“We joined forces with more than 70 public health and stakeholder groups to advocate for a federal nutrition standard so that anyone dining out can have clear, easy-to-use nutrition information at the point of ordering —information that is presented in the same way, no matter what part of the country. 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.”

Anita Jones-Mueller, president and CEO of San Diego-based consultancy Healthy Dining, agrees that the FDA rules are good for restaurants as well as for consumers. “For public health, people are more informed and educated than ever. They are inspired to make changes in the way they eat. And after so much time leading up to it, restaurants now have the energy and financial commitment to make it work,” she says. “Everyone will benefit.”

Although a mountain of fine print surrounds and further defines the FDA rules, they can be distilled down to three main requirements:

  • That those establishments covered by the rule disclose calories for all standard menu items. Calories must be clearly indicated on the menu, menu-board, or on signs adjacent to foods on display and self-serve foods that are standard to the menu. On request, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein amounts must also be immediately available to guests.
  • That these operations post a statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake (“2000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary”), with optional statements for menus and menu boards targeted at children.
  • That restaurants post a statement advising that written nutrition information for standard menu items is available upon request; this deeper dive will specifically require info on calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, and protein. It can be provided on a counter card, sign, poster, handout, booklet, loose-leaf binder, electronic device such as an iPad or in a menu; however it must be readily available on request.

Fats and Figures

With a rangy portfolio of restaurant brands including Olive Garden, Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Roadhouse Grill, Eddie V’s, Bahama Breeze and Yard House, Orlando-based Darden Restaurants has approximately 1,500 units at which it must post calorie counts as per FDA guidelines. Cheryl Dolvin, Senior Director of Health and Wellness, says the process is being completed in-house, a choice that makes sense for the resource-rich company.

“We already have standardized recipes to analyze, kitchen teams that are well trained and help provided by our suppliers. It makes sense for us to do it,” she explains, adding that the process is more complicated than just adding up ingredients and doing the math.

Dolvin recommends that companies planning to take the task in-house have carefully recorded formulas for all recipes and an accurate nutrition analysis program. Even with that, she says that some recipes will be sent to a laboratory. “It is difficult to get fried foods right; the oil absorption is too hard to calculate,” she advises.

It’s not enough to just post numbers; there must be a reasonable basis for declarations of the nutritional content, says the FDA. Nutrient content can be based on information obtained from databases, cookbooks, laboratory analyses, the Nutrition Facts label and other reasonable means. In addition, a covered establishment must take reasonable steps to ensure that the method of preparation of a standard menu item adheres to the factors on which nutrient values were determined.

Darden’s Dolvin expects that there will be some sticker shock when calorie counts hit menus. “Most people will tell you they want this information and I believe they do. But especially with items that are perceived to be healthy, they may be surprised at what they see,” she says. Salads, for instance, often have a healthy halo over them. Dressings, croutons, meat and cheese can add up, however, tossing in the cold hand of reality when calories are posted with them.

All Darden concepts are sit-down restaurants and Dolvin notes that for many customers, they aren’t everyday occasions. “They save up so they can enjoy the foods that they come for. But posting the information is the right thing for guests. Those who want it will use it,”
she says.

Jones-Mueller calls the FDA regulations a win-win all around. “Consumers can get all the information they want while restaurants can look at how it all adds up once the numbers are in. Maybe they will see an opportunity to put together a plan to reduce fat, calories or sodium while not compromising taste, flavor or presentation,” she says. “This will be a big positive for restaurants that handle it well.”

“To implement the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the Food and Drug Administration is requiring disclosure of certain nutrition information for standard menu items in certain restaurants and retail food establishments.”

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