Senators Pitch Last-Minute Attempt To Exempt Pizza Places From New Menu Labeling Law

Image courtesy of Furgus

On May 5, 2017, new federal regulations finalized three years ago will go into effect that require chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post calorie counts on their menus, as well as on food items sold in vending machines and snack bars. Before that happens, lawmakers in the Senate have introduced a bill to make a few revisions. What would those revisions mean for consumers faced with making mealtime decisions?

The “Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2017” was first introduced as HR.2017 in the House last year, where it died, only to be reborn earlier this month in the Senate as S.261.

One change the bill makes to the original law would allow pizza chains and “similar retail food establishments where the majority of orders are placed by customers who are off-premises at the time such order is placed” (in other words: restaurants that are primarily delivery to pick-up) to post their nutritional information solely online, and not at the actual restaurant. So even if a restaurant has 49.9% of its orders placed on the premises, it would be exempt from posting calorie counts on menus under this provision.

The pending legislation would also not require the online menu be visible when you place an order, whether on an app or through social media. Thus, a restaurant could bury this info somewhere on the eatery’s site.

Another proposed tweak to the law would also benefit pizza chains — as well as any restaurants selling items as smaller parts of a whole. The bill would remove a section requiring restaurants to display the number of calories contained in the standard menu item, as “usually prepared and offered for sale,” and replace it with language that would allow a business to list the calories for say, half a muffin, or one slice of pizza.

Consumer advocates, including our colleagues at Consumers Union, as well as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and groups like the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association, came out against the proposed amendments in an open letter today [PDF].

First of all, not having a standardized method of posting calories counts could be confusing as well as deceptive, advocates say.

“Without standardization, people will have more difficulty understanding and using the nutrition information for menu items,” the letter reads. “Posting the total calories per menu item enables consumers to more easily compare different types of food items, such as nachos, chicken wings, or pizza, and leaves it up to the individual – not the restaurant – to determine how many people will share the item. It would be deceptive to label muffins, entrees, desserts, and most menu items as multiple servings, since items are most often consumed by one person.”

As for the revision that would allow pizza chains and others with a robust takeout and delivery business to only post calorie counts online, the groups believe that these establishments”should post calories on their menu boards just like other chain restaurants, as Congress intended,” pointing out that while some consumers use online menus, “others use paper menus at home or menus and menu boards in a restaurant.

“All menus should list calorie so consumers can see the information when and where they are deciding what to order,” the letter reads.

The groups say in a statement that it doesn’t make sense to weaken a policy that “would allow people to make their own, informed choices about how many calories to eat at a time when obesity rates are at a record high.”

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