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New FDA Calorie Label Rules Include Pizza, Popcorn

It's taken four years, but the FDA has released final rules requiring restaurants to list calories on their menus.

Pizza, popcorn and salad bars all will have to list calorie counts under long-awaited rules to be published later Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration.

As expected, the rules require chain restaurants to list clear calorie information on menus. But they don’t require anything else, such as fat content, up front, and they exempt some, but not all, prepared grocery store products.

Pizza delivery chains get a little flexibility on counting the calories in toppings, but you’ll be able to see just how many calories are in movie theater popcorn, in vending machines and at the salad bar, as well.

It’s been one of the most contentious issues the FDA has ever had to weigh in on, commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg has said.

“We tried to be flexible and realistic as we put together these final rules,” Hamburg told reporters.

The hope is that people will see just how many calories they're about to swallow down, make wiser choices, and that fast-food chains and other retailers will revise their offerings to meet a new consumer demand for more healthful foods.

There's been plenty of lobbying from advocates and industry. “We did get a lot of comments and concern," Hamburg said. The FDA fielded 1,100 “substantive” comments from restaurants, consumer groups and grocery stores.

“Many of our proposed rules did garner a lot of feedback and comment,” Hamburg said. The FDA’s been working on the rules since 2010, when the Affordable Care Act required labels on restaurant food.

“It was much more complicated than we initially thought it would be,” Hamburg said. But she said, consumers are demanding the labeling and she expects restaurants to comply. They’ll have a year to do so.

“Covered establishments will list calorie information for standard menu items on menus and menu boards and a succinct statement about suggested daily caloric intake,” the FDA said in a statement.

“Other nutrient information — total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein — will have to be made available in writing on request.”

The final rules add a few areas that were not initially included in the 2011 proposals. For instance, movie theater chains and amusement parks will have to label food, and just about everyone agreed that alcoholic beverages should be included.

“This doesn’t apply to independent restaurants, bars or grocery stores,” Hamburg said. “It also doesn’t apply to food trucks, ice cream trucks, food served on airplanes or other transport vehicles.”

Only chains with 20 or more stores are covered, but “big box” stores that serve food, such as Target and Costco, will be included. Pizza restaurants can list calories by the slice but have to say how many slices in a pizza. They can also list a range of calories to take into account different toppings that customers will ask for.

The restaurant industry welcomed the rules.

“We believe that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers," the National Restaurant Association said in a statement.

"With one uniform national menu labeling law in effect, the administration has moved to eliminate the myriad of state and local regulations that have been confusing to the public, challenging and ultimately costly to large corporations and small franchise owners alike," Dunkin Donuts said in a separate statement.

“This doesn’t apply to independent restaurants, bars or grocery stores."

Studies have shown mixed results on whether Americans actually change behavior when they see the calorie counts on food, but Hamburg said it’s an important tool for people to have when two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. She says people may use them more as they get used to them.

But with Americans eating and drinking a third of their calories away from home, it’s important for them to be able to see what they’re taking in.

Here’s what’s included:

  • Meals from sit‐down restaurants
  • Foods purchased at drive‐through windows
  • Take‐out food, such as pizza
  • Foods, such as made‐to‐order sandwiches, ordered from a menu or menu board at a grocery store or delicatessen
  • Foods you serve yourself from a salad or hot food bar
  • Muffins at a bakery or coffee shop
  • Popcorn purchased at a movie theater or amusement park
  • A scoop of ice cream, milk shake or sundae from an ice cream store
  • Hot dogs or frozen drinks prepared on site in a convenience or warehouse store
  • Certain alcoholic beverages

Foods not covered include a loaf of bread or a pound of deli cheese.

Earlier this year, FDA proposed changes to food labeling that reflect how people really eat — guzzling entire 20-ounce sodas and large packages of chips.

The new rules also require vending machine operators to label their products.

“Even though some foods sold from vending machines already bear calorie information, this labeling is not always visible before purchase,” FDA said. Only vendors with 20 or more machines are covered.

Hamburg noted that many state and local governments are setting their own labeling rules for restaurants, and he said the industry should welcome consistent national guidelines.

She admitted the rules will not be easy to enforce and agreed that it’s also not going to be easy to check and see if the labels are accurate.

The American Cancer Society, which has lobbied in favor of the labels, said the final rules looked strong.

“Between one-fourth and one-third of all cancers are caused by poor nutrition, physical inactivity and excess weight,” said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the group’s lobbying arm.

“A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 60 percent of adults use calorie information on menus to decide what to order,” Hansen added. The group said FDA also needs to launch an education campaign so people know how to read and use the labeling.