Under Federal law, chain restaurants and similar food establishments with 20 or more locations (“covered restaurants”) must provide specific nutrition labeling information to customers. The federal law creates a single, national standard for all covered restaurants. These restaurants must clearly post calories for standard menu items on menus, menu boards, and drive-thru boards, along with a succinct statement regarding the suggested daily calorie intake. Similarly, covered restaurants must list calories next to self-serve food items offered in the restaurant, such as at buffets and salad bars. Upon request, covered restaurants must provide additional information in writing to customers, including the following: calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and protein.
However, 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 the nutritional disclosures. This standard will help protect restaurants from unreasonable litigation regarding the accuracy of the disclosures. That standard recognizes that preparing menu items is not an exact science and that the nutritional value of the same menu 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 will comply with the law.
Covered restaurants will not be required to comply with the Federal law until the FDA finalizes the governing regulations. However, certain states and municipalities already have laws requiring nutrition disclosure. Covered restaurants are exempt from these laws to the extent such laws are inconsistent with Federal law. Other restaurants that register with the FDA and voluntarily comply with the Federal law will also be exempt from inconsistent state and local laws.