The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which for years has been pushing for nutrition labeling on menus, agrees. The organization notes on its website that labeling laws are having the net effect of spurring chain restaurants to revamp menu items to improve their nutritional profiles. Among specific examples, it lists these changes:
Cosi switched to reduced-fat dressing and half the cheese in their Signature Salad, reducing calories from 610 to 380. Starbucks cut 5 percent of the calories and 15 percent of the fat from its pastry items, and 14 percent of calories and 36 percent of fat from its beverages. Taco Bell's Fresco menu contains 8 items with 9 grams of fat or less, including the Fresco Crunchy Taco with 150 calories versus 350 calories in the Taco Supreme.
Many popular chains have introduced special smaller-portion sections to their menus, including California Pizza Kitchen's "Small Cravings," the Cheesecake Factory's "Small Plates and Snacks," T.G.I. Friday's "Right Portion, Right Price," and Au Bon Pain's "Au Bon Portions" to highlight their lower-calorie options.
Dan Roehl, senior director of government affairs at the National Restaurant Association (NRA), says that, despite the operational and financial costs of complying with the new federal menu-labeling mandate, the association supports it. "That's primarily because what we saw developing was a patchwork of different state and local requirements. While the intent was similar in all of them, all had slightly different variations," he notes. "As a result, it was difficult for our multistate operators to produce a menu board that they could use across the country."
Roehl adds that the packaged food industry offers a precedent for what the foodservice industry now must embrace – a standardized, national approach to nutrition disclosure. He says the NRA will continue to provide input to the FDA as the regulatory process progresses.
One thing the NRA is pushing for is a measure of flexibility in the law's implementation as it applies to nutrition labeling on menus. "The law says the information has to be clearly conspicuous. That's what our members are trying to do, and we think there are a few ways to meet that requirement. So a big theme of our comment to the FDA has been that we are a very diverse industry, and while menu labeling may seem more simplistic on the surface, a lot of items on a typical menu board come in different variations and in different combinations. What we've tried to advocate is to give our companies the flexibility to figure out how to provide the information to customers in ways that can be the most useful to them."
The NRA is also working to secure more time for operators to comply with the mandate. FDA's initial proposal allotted just six months from the issuance of its final rules to enforcement.
"That may seem like a long time, but to do a full menu board redesign, production, ship-out, installation and train your employees throughout your entire system, that's really hard to achieve in six months," Roehl says. "For companies that don't have any experience with menu board design or calculating nutrition information, it's even more unrealistic."
Ultimately, the association hopes operators will have up to a year to implement the labeling law and will have the flexibility to come into compliance as they naturally make menu changes. "One of the things that a longer implementation also provides is an opportunity for companies to cycle the information in when they do a natural menu or menu board change-out," Roehl says. "If you're already going through the process of changing, you just have to work a bit more on the design side of it and the nutrition analysis. You can really drive down the cost of compliance if you have the flexibility to do it when you already would have been changing out your menu or menu boards."
NRA is also encouraging operators to not wait until the ink is dry on final FDA guidelines. Specifically, it recommends that all who have or will cross the 20-unit threshold begin calculating the nutrition profiles of their menu items and start experimenting with menus and menu board designs based on assumptions about what's likely to be included.
Paul Pitas, a spokesman for Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based Culver's Franchising System, says that Culver's already makes complete nutrition information available and that, like everyone else, the 450-unit chain was awaiting final FDA guidelines on menu labeling. He noted, too, that Culver's supports the initiative. "Our objective where menu labeling is concerned is the same as the FDA's: to offer completely transparent nutrition information that is accurate, clear, consistent and useful, just as we have done on our website and in print information for many years," Pitas says.
He adds that last year the company prepared a response to some of the initial language within the law and voiced some concerns, one of which is the use of caloric ranges for combination meals. "Given our kids' meals and value baskets, we feel it's better to identify the caloric value of every individual item that may be purchased as part of these combo meals rather than considering every possible combination of options and provide an overly broad range to cover the highest and lowest possible combination of items," Pitas says. "Through our own research, we know that caloric ranges are confusing to guests. We also hope for flexibility in the size of the font used for caloric disclosures to avoid guest confusion. Finally, due to the costs of compliance, we're advocating for an extended effective date as well as some flexibility in the rules to allow for the use of technology to meet objectives."
On the caloric-range question for combo meals and customizable menu items, Roehl says the NRA has suggested possibly using a "standard" or "most popular" build as a way to benchmark it for customers. Like Pitas, he feels technology will become a larger part of the nutrition transparency solution going forward. "With electronic menu boards, iPads, kiosks, etc., you can build your nutrition profile as you build your product, and it adjusts automatically," he says. "I expect we'll see a lot of innovation in this area as this law comes into effect."