FDA Unveils New Calorie-Labeling Rules

Overweight man refusing a hamburger with a hand sign.

After an agonizing (for the food industry) three-year wait, the FDA finally announced its new calorie labeling standards on Nov. 25, 2014 and many of the retailers affected by these requirements aren’t feeling very thankful for this change. While everyone knew change was coming, no one guessed how sweeping and comprehensive the FDA’s mandate would turn out to be, as few business that serve food for immediate consumption were able to escape its calorie counting “wrath.”

 Chain restaurants (defined as having more than 20 outlets), movie theaters, pizza places, amusement parks, convenience stores and grocery stores with deli sections will be required to post calorie counts for all of their ready-to-consume items. Even alcoholic beverages sold in restaurants will be subject to the rules of disclosure, as the FDA seeks to leave no calorie-carrying stone unturned.

These all-inclusive labeling standards will not go into effect until November 2015, which gave food sellers a decent amount of time to prepare. However, some food-related trade groups are promising to fight the new rules, calling them unnecessary, intrusive and counterproductive to job growth. Meanwhile, Congress is already busy crafting bills that would weaken the FDA’s proposals by establishing additional exemptions, so it remains to be seen how well the new regulations will hold up under the intense political pressure that lawyers, lobbyists and big-money political donors will bring to bear.

While the universal nature of the FDA’s edict is groundbreaking, calorie disclosure is already required in 18 states or large municipalities. And despite the woe-is-me cries emanating from some quarters, there appears to be little evidence to support the assertion that mandatory calorie labeling will cause great hardship to private businesses. The new FDA rules will be applied more broadly and widely than local laws, however, and putting them into practice could prove challenging for some of the food retailers included on the government’s list. Pizza places, for example, often fill customized orders that are far from standard, but they will still be expected to calculate exact calorie totals and provide that information to their customers.

Studies on the effectiveness of calorie labeling requirements have so far proven inconclusive. A 2008 survey of Starbucks customers found a 6 percent average calorie decrease per purchase following that chain’s decision to list calorie content. But other studies in places where labeling has been instituted have failed to find any detectable change in consumer behavior.

It must be noted, however, that attempts to monitor the effects of calorie labeling are only looking at the eating habits of customers while they are inside the eating establishment. This can give misleading results, because when given information about calorie content, people can choose to use that knowledge in different ways. So if, for example, a person knows she consumed a 1,500-calorie meal at her favorite chain restaurant earlier in the evening, she might be less inclined to finish off that last slice of cheesecake before going to bed that night. 

National Restaurant Association on Board

Full disclosure of information in a consumer economy is a right, not a privilege. “Let the Buyer Beware” is not an appropriate slogan for something as important as nutrition, and it will be highly unfortunate if Congress caves under pressure from the food industry and passes legislation that hamstrings the FDA as it attempts to put these new standards into practice.

When people know exactly how many calories they are consuming outside the home, they can choose to ignore that information if they wish—and the comments sections in stories about the FDA’s actions make it clear that many plan to do just that. It is unlikely that labeling requirements will cause food servers to lose customers. In fact, labeling could have the opposite effect, as some may feel comfortable eating out more if they don’t have to worry about hidden calories sabotaging their diets.

Interestingly, while some trade groups associated with the food industry are opposing the new standards, the National Restaurant Association is not. Restaurants in many locales have already chosen to display calorie counts or have been required to do so by local statute, and the feedback they have received for doing so has been so positive that the trade association that represents them has decided to go along with the FDA program. This is telling, and it is a good sign that constructive change is truly in the air.

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