Menu Labeling Guidance - What You Need to Know

Menu Labeling Guidance - What You Need to Know By Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, President of Healthy Dining
October 1, 2015

With the September 11, 2015 release of the newest FDA Draft Guidance for Industry by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), restaurant menu labeling regulations are once again top of mind for most restaurants coast to coast.  The recently released draft guidance document was first heralded in July to “provide answers to some of the more frequently asked and crosscutting questions that the agency has received to further assist covered establishments in complying with the rule.”  Armed with further clarification and insight, restaurants are now better positioned to take advantage of the menu labeling opportunity.  From combination meals to alcohol to the importance of accuracy in all nutrition disclosures, the newest menu labeling guidance document helps restaurants better understand and apply the final rules to their unique businesses. 

What is the Draft Guidance Document?
There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to restaurants.  Each brand is unique, making complex the task of implementing the FDA rules.  The goal of the Draft Guidance Document is to help restaurants better understand the final rules of menu labeling and apply them to their unique menu situation.  According to the FDA’s statement released along with the new guidance document:

“This guidance is intended to help establishments implement the rule and better understand the flexibility in the rule. The guidance also answers questions and helps explain how the final requirements work for different types of establishments. The guidance does not and cannot change the final requirements of the menu labeling rule.”

While it’s important for restaurants to become familiar with the final rules, the guidance document is a valuable resource to help restaurants with menu labeling compliance.  Healthy Dining’s culinary dietitians are delving into these guidelines to help you better understand the requirements and make sure you are offering accurate nutrition information.

Highlights of the Newest Guidance Document
Over the many months since the initial “Guidance for Industry: Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments; Small Entity Compliance Guide” (Guidance for the Industry) was released by the FDA, restaurants have raised a variety of questions about how to apply the rules and recommendations to their unique restaurant.  The purpose of the newest guidance document was to address these questions.  Highlights include:
  • Delivery Menus, Coupons and Kiosks: Several questions were raised about the need to disclose calories and required statements on non-traditional menus and marketing materials.  In each case, FDA specifies that if the item can be considered “primary writing,” menu labeling information will be required.  Specifically, “Primary writing of the covered establishment from which a customer makes an order selection depends on a number of factors, including whether the writing lists the name of a standard menu item (or an image depicting the standard menu item) and the price of the standard menu item, and whether the writing can be used by a customer to make an order selection at the time the customer is viewing the writing.”
  • Combination Meals: This topic was addressed in the recent guidance document for a variety of situations.  From listing calories in a range to combining standard menu items to posting calories for individual side items, the ultimate message from the FDA is that the information posted should be clear and easy to understand for guests when making their selections.
  • Catering and Party Platters: Limited previous information on this topic was expanded in the newest recommendations.  Essentially, depending upon the makeup of the platters (standard or variable), FDA clarified that, “In general, for multiple-serving standard menu items, such as platters, calories may be declared per discrete serving unit, as long as the discrete serving unit and the total number of discrete serving units contained in the menu item are declared on the menu or menu board.”   
  • Self-Service and Foods on Display: The new document provides clarification and examples for  declaring calories, required statements, and written nutrition information for these types of foods as well as addresses “grab and go” foods.
  • Alcoholic Beverages: With limited nutrition information available for alcohol products, the menu labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages in restaurants raised many questions within the industry about compliance.  In the new document, the FDA addressed several questions and provided examples for displaying calories for alcoholic beverages.  The FDA reiterated that, “There are several reasonable bases that can be used to determine calorie and other nutrient content of standard menu items, including alcoholic beverages. Nutrition labeling, including calorie labeling, for alcoholic beverages must be accurate and consistent with the specific basis used to determine nutrient values.”
  • Written Information Available: Many questions were raised regarding the additional information requirement.  While many restaurants may choose to include required nutrition information on their website, required information must still be available for anyone to access in restaurant.  According to the guidance document, “You must make available nutrition information for each standard menu item in a covered establishment. This information must be in written form, must be available on the premises of the covered establishment, and must be provided to customers upon request.”  

The Big Takeaway
With so much new information now available to restaurants moving ahead with menu labeling, what is the biggest message?  “One of the biggest takeaways of this latest guidance document is the FDA’s commitment to the intent of the final menu labeling rules,” says Diana Wiggins, RD.   “The ultimate goal of menu labeling legislation is to provide consumers with truthful information that is not misleading. The examples included in this document for displaying calories for menu items help restaurants to better understand the flexibility in the rules. Again and again, the FDA’s clarifications and recommendations stress the importance of providing accurate information that restaurant guests can easily understand and use to make informed choices when eating out,” Wiggins emphasizes. 

In fact, the FDA specifies that, “Although we recognize inadvertent human error and variations in ingredients, covered establishments must ensure that the nutrient declarations are truthful and not misleading, in part by having standard methods of preparation for standard menu items and taking reasonable steps to ensure that the methods of preparation used for a standard menu item adhere to the factors on which the nutrient levels were determined.”

While this may raise some concerns with restaurants committed to compliance, it’s also important to highlight how the FDA plans to move forward with menu labeling.  “We encourage covered establishments to consider the information in this draft guidance as they prepare to comply with the final rule by December 2016. We will work flexibly and cooperatively with individual companies making a good faith effort to comply. We believe that this cooperative approach helps to improve the dialogue surrounding the requirements and facilitates successful implementation in a practical way.”

The menu labeling legislation deadline will be here before we know it.  While guidance documents from the FDA, such as the most recent draft guidance, are not binding, the recommendations can help guide restaurants in complying.  Are you ready to take advantage of the menu labeling opportunity?

Disclaimer: Menu labeling compliance information provided by Healthy Dining should not be construed as legal advice. Our team of registered dietitians and other personnel have reviewed the menu labeling regulations promulgated by the FDA in detail and communicate regularly with the FDA to clarify, ask questions and receive guidance. However, the information Healthy Dining provides has not been drafted or reviewed by an attorney and should not be viewed as legal advice. It is also important to note that the advice Healthy Dining receives from the FDA in conversations or which was provided by the FDA in the Guidance for Industry documents released in March 2015 and September 2015 is nonbinding on the FDA, which expressly reserves the right to change its thinking.