Menu Labeling Confusion – What You Need to Know

Menu Labeling Confusion – What You Need to Know By Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, President and Sara Lucero, Director of Content, Healthy Dining
December 5, 2016

Restaurant menu labeling regulations, both the nationwide and California regulations, are once again in the news and garnering attention.  Here’s what you need to know if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of restaurants affected by the new rules.

Nationwide Menu Labeling
On the heels of the long Thanksgiving weekend, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week announced a clarification of the menu labeling compliance date that quickly mobilized legislators and the food industry.  In the statement, released Tuesday November 29, 2016, the FDA clarified that the menu labeling compliance date remained December 1, 2016, while enforcement would not begin until May 5, 2017.  The announcement was immediately met with shock from many across the industry and in Congress, as most everyone had understood the final compliance date to be May 5, 2017.  Stakeholders across the nation called on the federal agency to maintain a May 5, 2017, deadline, allowing restaurants the necessary time to complete the complicated process of nutrition analysis, procedure updates and posting of required information.

In answer, the FDA released a second statement on Friday December 2, 2016, outlining its plan to officially make May 5, 2017 the final menu labeling compliance date:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today announced that it will soon publish a final rule to formally extend to May 5, 2017, the compliance date for the agency’s 2014 menu labeling regulation, which requires disclosure of certain nutrition information for standard menu items in certain chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments. This extension will align the compliance date with the enforcement date.

The National Restaurant Association quickly responded, praising the FDA for its decision:

The National Restaurant Association applauds the FDA for issuing this important clarification regarding menu labeling,” said Cicely Simpson, executive vice president of government affairs and policy at the National Restaurant Association. “We have long-advocated for a nationwide federal menu labeling standard that gives customers access to uniform nutritional information at restaurants, that provides certainty to restauranteurs and food service operators over the patchwork of state and local laws. Today’s announcement by the FDA gives the food service industry the time it needs to empower their customers to make the best choices for themselves.

It wasn’t just nationwide menu labeling regulations scheduled to go into effect December 1, 2016.  With somewhat less fanfare, California’s menu labeling regulations quietly went into effect last week.  Similar to nationwide menu labeling, California’s regulations require restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide calories and required statements on menus and menu boards and additional written nutrition information on the premises.  The National Restaurant Association last week offered the following guidance to affected restaurants in California:
Covered restaurants should continue to move forward with plans to implement the calorie menu labeling requirements.  We plan to work cooperatively with California Restaurant Association and California officials on their “educational approach” which recognizes the opportunities and challenges our industry faces in meeting the federal May 5, 2017, date.

The trade association also encouraged restaurants to “document ongoing efforts toward compliance on May 5, 2017” in an effort “to address a California regulator’s concerns over any alleged non-compliance.”

Next Steps
There is little doubt that restaurants affected by California and/or Federal menu labeling regulations are now faced with a new way of doing business and they are not alone.  Demand for nutrition and allergen information, as well as overall transparency, is growing across the nation.  Restaurants large and small are answering this demand and because of it, building a stronger brand with more loyal guests.

More than anything, last week’s series of announcements highlights the need for restaurants subject to menu labeling to quickly move forward with compliance to avoid potential issues down the road. Following guidance from the National Restaurant Association and working with menu labeling and nutrition experts is essential to efficiently navigating the compliance process and providing the transparency consumers now expect.