Consider the Source: Nutritional Information Required for FDA Menu Labeling Compliance Must Begin with Reliable Data

by Angela Fernandez3 Min Read

Consumer demand for more information about the foods we eat is fueling changes in the foodservice industry, and new menu labeling requirements will help to bring some of that information to restaurant customers. With the regulatory deadline fast approaching, that leaves operators with a lot of work to do, and time is running short.

Beginning May 5, 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require chain restaurants and food retail establishments to provide calorie and other nutritional information to consumers. Calories for each menu item must be listed on all menus and additional written nutrition information must be made available to consumers upon their request – including calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein.

This mandate applies to restaurant chains with 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name, serving the same menu items. The rule will apply to everything from an entrée at a restaurant to a slice of “ready-to-eat” pizza from the foodservice section of the grocery store. It was enacted to address increased consumer concerns and interest in knowing how their food is prepared, the ingredients that are used, whether it’s non-GMO, organic, allergen-free, and more.              

Enabling Consumers to Make Informed Choices

The FDA menu labeling regulation grew largely out of public concern surrounding the nationwide obesity epidemic, fueled by changing American lifestyles. More than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. Meanwhile, about a third of consumers’ total calorie consumption comes from out-of-home food providers, including restaurants and other similar food service establishments. Often, consumers underestimate, or cannot find, information about the caloric content of foods purchased at such venues, resulting in overeating and weight gain.

Obesity has been linked to some of the leading causes of preventable death, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It’s not surprising that in recent years, consumers have expressed a desire for nutritional transparency from restaurants and other food providers. Mounting consumer demand for detailed information about the food we buy and eat has led to regulations such as the menu labeling rule, as well as GMO labeling and an update to the Nutrition Facts Panel for packaged foods.

How Will the Nutrition Content be Determined?

The FDA states that the “establishment covered by the menu labeling rule must have a reasonable basis for its nutrient content declarations.” Suggested sources for the nutrient content declarations include nutrient databases, cookbooks, laboratory analyses, the Nutrition Facts label, and “other reasonable means.”

Collaboration between food suppliers, distributors, and operators is essential to maximize the nutritional information available to restaurant owners. Other sources, such as those suggested in the FDA guideline, may help to corroborate this information.

Building the Menu

Compiling the nutritional information to meet the new requirements is a monumental job that demands systematic collection of data from multiple food suppliers. Restaurant chains rely on the accuracy of the product information they receive from their vendors. It is crucial to ensure that the food attribute data they obtain from them is current, complete and correct.

GDSN helps ensure both restaurant operators and their suppliers are working with quality data that is reliable and easy to use. The data is properly defined and formatted to GS1 Standards, making it identical across trading partners. Updates are made in real time and data sharing is automated.

Fulfilling the Promise

Once the required nutritional information for an entire menu has been compiled and entered into menu planning systems, restaurants still have work yet to do. To comply with the FDA rules, the information must be communicated to customers, and easy for them to find. Calories must be listed clearly and prominently on menus and menu boards and on signs next to self-service foods and foods on display. Even the size and color of the calorie designations on signage is regulated in the ruling (basically stating that it must be just as noticeable as the menu item listing itself, or its price).

Then, the only way to maintain compliance over time is to make sure that every chef and server understands the sanctity of a restaurant’s recipes. The FDA further states that the restaurant “must take reasonable steps to ensure that the method of preparation and amount of a standard menu item adheres to the factors on which nutrient values were determined.”

That means any tinkering with measurements, condiments, or ingredients can alter the nutritional makeup and cause a compliance issue (not to mention customer complaint and dissatisfaction). When recipes are changed or new items are added to a restaurant’s menu, the GDSN data network can again provide an important resource for updating the nutritional information according to requirements.

Compliance with the new regulation is a pressing concern with little time to spare in getting ready. Through it all, it helps to remember that transparency is what consumers expect from the companies whose products they buy (and whose meals they eat). Collecting, standardizing, and maintaining the data that’s needed to satisfy their information needs is no small task. The return, however, may well be immeasurable. Happy customers become loyal customers.

Angela Fernandez

@gs1us | Website

Angela Fernandez is vice president of retail grocery and foodservice at GS1 US and is responsible for leading the industry engagement strategy to drive broader adoption of GS1 Standards and solutions for the food industry. She is an authority on the food supply chain and food traceability.

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