Dinner Is Served

An Experiment Begins with Calories Everywhere

FDA will today unveil their final rules for labeling calories everywhere that food is prepared and served away from home. Within a year, you will be seeing calorie counts in restaurants, vending machines, delis, bakeries, pizza joints, and even the prepared food departments in grocery stores.

Cranking out these rules has taken almost five years. The legal basis for them was signed into law in early 2010 as a provision of the Affordable Care Act (thanks again, Obamacare). The law called for calorie counts to be posted on menus, but the details were left to FDA to specify through regulations. The FDA’s initial proposal was floated in 2011 and since then it’s been a goldmine for lobbyists as industry groups that represent a big chunk of the American economy sought to protect themselves from the pain these new regulations might cause.

Some are happy. Restaurants — represented by the National Restaurant Association — made peace with these regulations and even supported them. Having one national standard is a big improvement over a patchwork of increasingly complex and conflicting local regulations. Outspoken food policy advocates like Margo Wootan and Marion Nestle are overjoyed. The Obesity Society quickly commended the action.

The unhappy campers are grocery stores that will have to start labeling the freshly-prepared foods they sell in their deli departments. The Food Marketing Institute that lobbies for them is “extremely disappointed.” They say that the effect will be a broad replacement of freshly prepared food with packaged foods. The regulatory burden of testing and labeling the myriad offerings of a deli department will be overwhelming, they say.

And movie theaters that sell a large serving of popcorn with as much as 1,030 calories and 41 grams of fat — even before they pump on the yellow butterish goo — are none too happy. They make more money on popcorn than on movie tickets.

Others are unaffected. Businesses with fewer than 20 outlets, mixed drinks, party trays, airplane food, and food trucks are exempt. Pizza outlets can get away with listing ranges instead of a specific count for every permutation you can order.

In an understatement for the record books, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said “It was much more complicated than we originally thought it would be.” She went on to concede that we are embarking on a big, uncontrolled experiment, saying:

We’ll know a lot more about actual changes in behavior as a result of this over time. But there are many influences on diet and behavior and health. This initiative is really all about trying to provide consumers information that they can use to make more informed food choices for themselves and for their families.

The learning from research to date tells us that consumer behaviors might not change much. Ever flexible, the advocates for this policy are now promoting the idea that it will prompt the industry to make healthy changes.

With so many entrenched interests, an objective analysis of results from this experiment might be hard to find.

“Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it.” — Mark Twain

Click here to read more from the Washington Post, here to read more from Reuters, and here to read more from the New York Times.

Dinner Is Served, photograph © Dennis Jarvis / flickr

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