Calorie counts: Coming to a restaurant, movie theater, vending machine near you

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A menu displays U.S. fast food chain’s beef burger menu in New York. Americas long love affair with calorie-heavy burgers, fries and shakes is on the wane, as consumers become increasingly aware of the benefits of eating better. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s about to get a lot tougher to hide from calories.

Chain restaurants, vending machines, grocery stores, coffee shops and pizza joints will soon have to display detailed calorie information on their menus under long-awaited rules to be issued Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration.

The calorie-posting requirements extend to an array of foods that Americans consume in their daily lives: popcorn at the movie theater, muffins at a bakery, a deli sandwich, a milkshake at an ice cream shop, a drive-through cheeseburger, a hot dog at Costco or Target.

“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. The new rules will help people make more informed choices about the food they eat, she said.

Chain restaurants and other establishments will have one year to comply with the regulations. Owners of vending machines will have two years to post calorie information for each item inside the machines on nearby placards, posters or digital displays.

Activists who for years have pushed for more transparent and consistent menu labeling, saying it would provide an important tool in combating the nation’s obesity epidemic, praised the FDA’s action.

“I consider this an enormous advance for public health education and well worth the long wait,” said Marion Nestle, a prominent nutrition expert and public health professor at New York University. “This is great news for public health and, hopefully, an incentive to restaurants to reformulate their offerings to be lower in calories.”

The enthusiasm wasn’t universal.

Some industry groups, such as those that represent grocery stores and pizza outlets, have argued that it is impractical and onerous to require calorie labels on food that is made to order and can vary by customer. They have insisted that the effort would shrink bottom lines far more than waistlines.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Rob Rosado, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents thousands of supermarkets and grocery wholesalers.

Rosado said 95 percent of food in grocery stores comes with nutrition information, thanks to a 1990 law that required labels on packaged foods, and that prepared foods represent only a fraction of each store’s business. Requiring labels for fresh food made in grocery stores, delis and bakeries could cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars in signage, worker training and laboratory tests to determine the calories in each dish, he said. He thinks it also might prompt stores to carry fewer freshly made items to avoid the regulatory headaches.

“You’re penalizing any kind of freshness. . . . It’s going to be replaced with prepackaged food,” Rosado said. “It’s going to have a negative impact for grocery store consumers.”

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