The Food and Drug Administration published its final rule for menu labeling on December 1, 2014, and the compliance date was established as May 7, 2018. After a year grace period, operators should expect to see enforcement mechanisms emerge to achieve compliance later this year, likely through local health departments.

The rule requires that certain restaurants and similar retail food establishments provide consumers with calorie and other nutrition information for standard menu items. The goal is to provide consumers with nutrition information in a clear and consistent manner to enable them to make informed choices for themselves and their families when eating foods away from home.

The menu labeling rule requires covered establishments, generally food service operations with 20 or more units, to:

  • Disclose calories for standard menu items listed on menus and menu boards;
  • Disclose calories for foods on display and self-service foods that are standard menu items;
  • Include on menus and menu boards a succinct statement concerning suggested caloric intake and a statement that additional nutrition information is available upon request; and
  • Have the required additional written nutrition information available upon consumer request on the premises of the covered establishment.

Many of the industry leaders in the quick service restaurant category have already complied with the FDA menu labeling rule. Other quick-service restaurant chains that are just below the threshold of 20 units but foresee expansion, or those who are required to comply with the rule but have not done so, may view the requirements of the FDA rule to be a daunting task, and are unsure of the impacts on sales as calorie counts become a part of the menu as noticeable as the price.

Once the data is posted on menus, how will consumers react? While there can be sticker shock for some customers who hoped their triple cheeseburger combo meal was a healthy option, many other customers already have a sense of calories and some just assume a worst-case scenario. There can be relief to see a reasonable calorie count for a menu item, opening the door to reduced consumer guilt. 

Operators should not assume that posting calorie counts automatically has a negative impact on sales but should be watchful for customer reactions. Customers who want to indulge themselves with their favorite menu items no matter what will continue to order and ignore the calorie counts. Customers who take a more balanced approach to nutrition may adjust their behaviors based on the information provided but still want to enjoy their dining experience.  For operators that support higher price points by offering value in larger portions, posting calories may impact consumer behaviors. A double cheeseburger order can become a single, but it is also true that a customer may elect to order their favorite pasta entrée and eat half now and take the other half for later. 

Operators may find that posting calorie counts leads to a need to develop menu items targeted to more health-conscious customers—customers who can be the veto voice in the group conversation of “where shall we go out to eat tonight?.” Today’s consumers are more inclined to want transparency in menu choices, so when operators cannot answer questions about ingredients, allergens, or nutrition content or offers limited acceptable menu choices, it lowers consumer confidence in that operation.

A closer look into FDA Menu Labeling compliance may reveal benefits for operators that might not obvious at first glance.  For example, the recipe review required to nutritionally analyze menu items can reveal inconsistencies in recipes across its units, such as weights and measures of ingredients or consistency of the products used. The more accurate the recipe the better, and nutrition data can be an excellent marker for recipe accuracy. A small error in a recipe’s ingredients or yield may not show up in product quality or in recipe costing exercises, but a dietitian can glance at nutrition data for a recipe and quickly identify when the data appears unreasonable. Accurate recipes lead to accurate production costs, accurate price setting, and accurate purchasing models—all leading to improved margins for the operator.

Consumers want the foods they love to be good for them, so nutrition data can assist chefs as they try to make this true for their menus by adjusting recipes and ingredients to cut calories while maintaining flavor.  The overall intent of the FDA rule is to create change in the foods being ordered, so operators should be prepared to innovate menus to adapt as trends emerge.

Randy Lait is a Certified Auxiliary Services Professional and is co-owner of Menu Analytics. He has 35 years in the food service industry, including as Senior Director of Hospitality Services at NC State University.  He is a 2019 recipient of the IFMA Silver Plate for Colleges and Universities.
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