Starting May 7, 2018, certain restaurants and similar food service providers need to comply with new menu labeling requirements designed to provide nutritional information to customers.
These requirements first came up as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which included measures focused on improving Americans’ overall health, not just access to insurance. But implementation has been repeatedly delayed, providing time for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop the regulatory framework and for industry members to prepare and offer their own comments.
Under these regulations, restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations will need to display calorie information on their menus and also be able to provide an array of nutritional information to customers upon request. These rules will apply regardless of the chain’s ownership structure, as long as the locations all operate under the same trade name. Affected food establishments include obvious locations, like chain restaurants and fast food services, but also places like coffee shops, entertainment parks that serve food, and grocery stores.
What Does This Mean for Beverage Alcohol Suppliers?
These regulations are unlikely to have a direct impact on most members of the beverage alcohol supplier tier. Only actual restaurant-style facilities are required to comply with these rules, and then only if they are part of a chain with 20 or more active locations.
However, suppliers should be aware of what these menu requirements are, as this offers suppliers with the opportunity to better direct the nutritional information that will be provided. As described below, restaurants can use generic tables as their source for nutritional information.
This could unfairly bias the customer when they see no difference in nutritional content between, say, a low-sugar pinot grigio and a generic “wine.” Suppliers, then, are encouraged to control their own messaging, by providing their own, more favorable nutritional contents, rather than relying on the restaurant to plug
in any old numbers.
What Information Needs to be Available?
Nutritional data will need to be provided in two forms: first, the caloric content of all standard food items (i.e. food that is listed on menus for 60 or more days per year) must be clearly displayed; in addition, a full suite of nutritional information for these standard foods must be made available if a customer asks for it. These food items do include beverages.
This fuller suite must include data on such things as the total fat, trans fat, sodium, cholesterol, fiber, sugar, and protein contents of the food items.
However, as provided in the regulations, standard food items that contain an insignificant amount of 6 or more of these nutrients can use a simplified format to display the nutritional content. The simplified format must at least provide a list or table of the item’s 1) total calories, 2) total fat, 3) total carbohydrates, 4) protein, 5) sugars, and 6) calories from fat, along with any of the otherwise required nutrients that are present in more than insignificant amounts.
For beverage alcohol products, which were cited by the FDA as the paramount example of a food stuff where a simplified format is permitted, the list can be pared back even further. This may vary among products, but, for instance, wine products can get away just listing 1) calories, 2) carbohydrates, 3) sugar, and 4) sodium. Any such reduced list, though, must also be accompanied by a statement such as, “Not a significant source of Total Fat, Calories from Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol, Dietary Fiber, or Protein,” depending on which items were left off.
How do I Determine the Nutrient Content?
Under the regulations, a restaurant must have a “reasonable basis” for the nutritional information it provides, which is admittedly a pretty loose standard. In effect, this means that, when pressed, the restaurant must be able to show that it can justify arriving at those nutritional data, that they are not made up from whole cloth. The suggested means of establishing the reasonable basis includes using nutrient databases or laboratory analyses, which each come with pros and cons.
For some, using nutrient databases can be a cheap and effective means of providing the necessary data. Indeed, the USDA maintains a free, public database of nutritional data, with a wide variety of generic and branded foods, including 35 different wine varietals. In addition, members of Wine Institute can access a new nutritional calculator, available on their Members-only site. Other industry databases may be available, and it is recommended that suppliers use them when available.
Relying on a database, however, could be too unspecific for some. A database can only provide general data on what one might expect for that food item. If your product is, say, particularly light on carbohydrates, you may end up misrepresenting yourself to potential customers. Further, the database may not include the particular alcoholic beverage you’re looking for. This could be the case for the beer market; the USDA database only has only a handful of listings for generic beers.
A laboratory analysis might then be the preferred method for someone with specialized and unique products. This would provide the most specific data available, though it could be quite costly to perform: on average $350 per analysis. Either way would require a showing of the methodology used if the restaurant were to be audited by the FDA, including a listing of the lab or database used and signed statements affirming that the information is accurate.
Ultimately, it is the duty of the restaurant to ensure that it can provide nutritional information that it has a reasonable basis for believing is accurate. But presumably, restaurants will be looking for their vendors to make this information readily available, particularly for prepared items like beverage alcohol. Certainly, a supplier who has such data on hand will be appreciated by restaurants. But more so, being able to direct the nutritional data that describes their products is a much more favorable position for most suppliers to be in.
What’s the broader impact here?
The FDA menu labeling rules comes amid a wider movement to provide clear and accurate nutritional information on all manner of foodstuffs. For many good reasons, people are becoming more concerned with their health and the content and quality of the food they consume. Within beverage alcohol, industry groups have by and large supported such efforts to provide consumers with clear, accurate information that can better inform those consumers’ decisions, at least when those disclosures come from sound, rational public policy reasons and not out of fear mongering.
Certainly, it is preferable for the public to know what they are consuming; greater transparency should lead to improved choices. Whether these programs will actually change American consumption habits, though, will only be revealed in time.