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Menu labeling 101: What operators should know about new FDA rules

7 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

The Food and Drug Administration has finally released the menu labeling rules and regulations that restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required to follow starting at the end of 2015. While the long-awaited rulebook lays out what information restaurants and other foodservice locations will need to display, it also raises many questions about how operators will obtain correct nutrition information for all their offerings and how they will include these numbers on menus. SmartBrief interviewed Anita Jones-Mueller, president and CEO of Healthy Dining, about what operators need to know about the new rules.

Last week, the FDA released the final rules for the menu labeling legislation. What should restaurants know about the final rules?

Yes, the FDA released the very lengthy Federal Register, dated December 1, 2014, which outlines the menu labeling rules and regulations requiring restaurants with 20 or more U.S. locations to post calories on menus and menu boards and provide nutrition information for 11 nutrients for all standard menu items, as well as print a calorie statement on menus. The Federal Register outlines many of the 1,100 comments collected from stakeholders over the last few years which guided the development of the final rules.

I’d say there were five important aspects of the final rules that were unknown until now:

  1. The compliance date is December 1, 2015.
  2. Alcoholic beverages — as well as non-alcoholic — are subject to the labeling rules if the beverages are standard items listed on a menu or available through self-serve machines.
  3. The scope of “covered establishments” with 20 or more locations that are subject to the legislation was expanded to include any type of “retail establishment that offers for sale restaurant or restaurant-type food.” So this includes grocery and convenience stores (delis and other foods prepared for takeout), ice cream shops, amusement parks, bowling alleys, movie theatres, delivery and takeout foods — pretty much any eatery offering food that is ready to eat.
  4. Trans fats are included in the nutrient information that must be available upon request. The complete list of eleven nutrients required is: Total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugar and protein.
  5. This statement must be printed on menus and menu boards: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary. Additional nutrition information available upon request.”

How should operators start getting ready?

Healthy Dining’s dietitians recommend these “musts for menu labeling:”

  1. Establish precise recipes: Before anything else, it’s essential to establish precise recipes as protocol. An accurate recipe is the foundation for an accurate nutrient analysis as well as the tool to train your staff to produce consistent, standardized menu items. Recipes must include exact measurements, brand names or suppliers of ingredients and corresponding product labels with nutrition information per 100 grams, and specific processes detailing the item’s method of preparation.
  2. Invest in expert dietitians: Once your recipes are standardized and ready for analysis or accuracy validation (if your restaurant already has nutrition information), it is critical to utilize dietitians with restaurant industry nutrition expertise for your restaurant’s nutrition analysis. Calculating accurate nutrition information for complex recipes and preparation procedures takes a great deal of expertise in nutrition, dietetics and food science as well as a thorough understanding of the unique aspects of foodservice. The nutrition analyst will need to understand the effects of evaporation, absorption, cooking methods and other processes on the nutrient values and apply formulas to account for these processes. A rigorous quality control and review system is important to double and triple check accuracy. The dietitians should also be well versed in the menu labeling rules and regulations.
  1. Train staff to adhere to recipe protocol: With precise recipes as your foundation and training tool, it is very important to train the cooking and wait staff to meticulously prepare and serve menu items exactly as the recipe states. The nutrition information will only be accurate if the items are prepared in accordance with the recipes upon which the nutrient analysis was based.
  2. Allow plenty of time for menu and nutrition information design and printing: The menu labeling rules are very specific for how the calorie information must be displayed. Many restaurants have rather complex menus with a variety of preparation and ordering variations, so it will be important to understand the rules and to take time to design updated menus with the required calorie information and statement. Before you consider them final, menu proofs should be reviewed by registered dietitians.
  1. Keep nutrition information up-to-date and accurate: It is equally important to develop and implement a rigorous operational system to keep the information accurate over time. You will need a reporting mechanism for recipe changes that starts with the chef/culinary department updating the recipes, notifying the dietitian responsible for updating the nutrition information, training the cooking staff, and then notifying the marketing department to update the menus, brochures, website and other materials that include nutrition information. If restaurants fail to develop a rigid system, the reported nutrition information will not be accurate. It is generally very difficult and time-consuming to go back and figure out what has or has not been updated, so your restaurant will benefit by having a system in place from the beginning.

How can operators be sure they are providing accurate nutrition info to customers? Once info is added to menu boards, how often should it be updated?

Accuracy will be essential to protect brand image, build guest loyalty and comply with the legislation. Following the “5 Musts” above will ensure your restaurant is taking the steps to offer accurate information. In March, Healthy Dining will be releasing an online “Nutri-Serve” menu labeling training series that will include modules to train management, back-of-house and front-of-house on the essential components for meeting the FDA menu labeling rules and ensuring that the nutrition information is as accurate as possible.

The Federal Register states that the FDA will work “cooperatively with the Federal, State, and local Government Agencies to obtain industry-wide compliance.” Regarding accuracy, the Register states, “Nutrition labeling for a standard menu item must be truthful and not misleading, consistent with the specific basis used to determine nutrient values, and otherwise in compliance…We recognize that changes in nutrition information for standard menu items could cause a covered establishment to change a menu or menu board even if the list of menu items has not changed. In general, revised nutrition must be posted before serving the food. Compliance will be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the specific facts and circumstances. We recommend that a covered establishment coordinate changes in menu items that are significant enough to affect nutrient content with the introduction of new items that also require updating a menu or menu board to help minimize costs…may also use measures such as stickers to update nutrient content on menus or menu boards…Nevertheless, food labeling, including nutrition labeling, for a food must be truthful and not misleading…If a label on a food bear nutrition information for such food that is false or is otherwise misleading, the food would be misbranded under section 403(a)(1) of the FD&C Act.”

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