FDA Extends Menu Labeling Mandate Deadlines

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially announced it would extend the compliance date of new menu labeling regulations, which requires chain restaurants and retail food establishments to disclose certain nutrition information, to May 5, 2017.

“While FDA made clear that we would not begin enforcing menu labeling requirements prior to May 5, 2017, we did not at that time formally make a change to the compliance date through rulemaking,” the FDA wrote in its final rule published last week.

This announcement officially extends the compliance date from Dec. 1 to align with the enforcement date of May 5.

The extension is the result of the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed on Dec. 18, 2015, which prohibited the FDA from using appropriated funds to “implement, administer or enforce the menu labeling requirements” until one year after the agency issued its final guidance for menu labeling requirements.

The final guidance was announced on May 5, 2016, in the Federal Register, making enforcement a year after that date.

Requirements Affect All Types of Food Establishments

With more than two-thirds of adults considered to be overweight or obese, the goal of the menu labeling requirements is to provide the public with relevant nutrition information to make more conscious food choices.

The FDA menu regulations affect “standard menu items” sold in certain restaurants and other eateries with at least 20 locations. This would affect most chain restaurants, including those with franchise locations.

“The requirements are threefold: Each menu item must have a clearly visible calorie count, and each food establishment must post two statements, one noting that the average daily intake is 2,000 calories and another letting customers know that detailed nutritional information about each menu item is available on request,” according to a policy briefing in Health Affairs.

While ready-made food in grocery stores and even movie theaters must adhere to the new regulations, food served on airplanes, by food trucks, and at catering events are exempt from labeling requirements.

The regulations have the support of the restaurant industry, which prefers federal standards in lieu of the numerous and sometimes conflicting laws imposed by states and localities across the United States. For example, cities like New York already require calorie labeling on menu items.

Public health advocates also support the menu regulations as a way to improve knowledge of dietary choices.

“The new rules around menu labeling are terrific,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Margo Wootan, a vocal critic of federal food policies, told NPR after the rules were released in 2014.

Menu Labeling Requirements in the Works for 5 Years

Although the Affordable Care Act is best known as the controversial health care act spearheaded by President Barack Obama, the 2010 bill also included a mandate that certain restaurants and vending machines provide clear nutrition labeling to better inform the public of dietary choices.

The FDA proposed regulations to menu labeling in 2011 and accepted more than a thousand comments for three months. The requirements underwent several delays over the years, but the FDA finally issued its regulations in late 2014. Despite an initial compliance date of December 2015, the FDA extended the deadline twice at the request of the restaurant industry to address concerns.

A guidance that would clarify the initial rules was issued in 2015, and a notification of availability was issued in 2016.

The May 5 deadline might seem like a clear end in sight for the oft-delayed regulations, but a few additional hurdles may stand in the way. In 2016, the House passed the Common Sense Menu Disclosure Act of 2015. This legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed by the president, would affect some of the requirements the FDA is implementing and would likely delay the menu labeling regulations further.

It’s also unclear what effect President-Elect Donald Trump, who has promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, will have on the menu labeling regulations.