Federal Nutrition Disclosure Law: What You Need to Know
Under federal law, chain restaurants and similar food establishments with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name (“covered restaurants”) must provide specific nutrition labeling information to customers. Vending machine companies that operate 20 or more vending machines are also covered by the law. The federal law creates a single, national standard for all covered restaurants.
These restaurants must clearly and conspicuously post calories for standard menu items on menus, menu boards, and drive-thru boards. Standard menu items include menu items offered for sale at least 60 days per calendar year. Covered restaurants must also list calories next to self-serve food items offered in the restaurant, such as at buffets and salad bars.
In addition, menus, menu boards, and drive-thru boards must include a succinct statement regarding the suggested daily caloric intake and a statement regarding the availability of additional nutritional information. Upon request, covered restaurants must provide additional information about standard menu items in writing to customers, including the following: calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and protein.
The law does not apply to the following items: 1) food items not on the menu (such as condiments or other items placed on the table/counter for general use), 2) most alcoholic drinks, 3) daily specials, 4) temporary menu items (on the menu for less than 60 days during the calendar year), 5) custom orders, and 6) customary test marketing items (on the menu for less than 90 days).
The new law contains a “reasonable basis” standard for restaurants to use in developing their nutritional disclosures. This standard will help protect restaurants from unreasonable litigation regarding the accuracy of the disclosures. The standard recognizes that preparing menu items is not an exact science and that the nutritional value of the same menu item will vary somewhat from restaurant to restaurant. So long as restaurants base their nutritional calculations on a reasonable basis—such as nutrient databases, cookbooks, or laboratory analyses—they comply with the reasonable basis standard.
Covered restaurants will not be required to comply with the federal law until the FDA finalizes the governing regulations. The FDA is required to publish proposed regulations by March 23, 2011. There will then be a period for public comment before the final regulations are adopted.
Interaction with state and local disclosure laws
Certain states and municipalities already have laws requiring nutrition disclosure. Covered restaurants will not have to comply with these laws to the extent such laws are inconsistent with federal law. Restaurants with fewer than 20 locations must still comply with any applicable state or local disclosure law unless they voluntarily comply with federal law.
To be excused from complying with inconsistent state and local laws, restaurants with fewer than 20 locations must register with the FDA and then comply with the federal law.