House passes bill that gives grocery stores wiggle room on menu labeling regulations

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock
Legislation passed in the House Feb. 12 would give grocers wiggle room to comply with FDA’s menu-labeling requirements, which they and others complain is overly burdensome and unrealistic for how grocery stores operate. 

The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015, HR 2017​, “offers workable solutions to fix flaws”​ in FDA’s “cookie-cutter”​ menu-labeling regulations, which were originally designed for restaurants but expanded to grocery stores in 2015, according to the Food Marketing Institute, which aggressively lobbied for the bill.

In a letter it sent to House Representatives leading up to the vote Feb. 12, FMI explained FDA’s final menu labeling regulation, which requires labeling of “restaurant-type foods”​ in establishments with 20 or more locations, did not take into account the unique characteristics of fresh and prepared food sold at grocery stores that vary by location.

“Our individual stores have discretion to offer items that reflect the local foods and tastes of their community. There are some items that may sell at only one or two stores, and while the same name may be listed, the ingredients or recipes may vary. Under FDA’s rules, these individualized foods are considered ​‘standard menu items’ and are regulated,”​ FMI explained in a background document.

It added the burden of compliance for these items would discourage grocers from offering “truly fresh items or [sourcing] from local purveyors”​ and instead would encourage them to offer “more standardized or pre-packaged food offerings.”

HR 2017, which passed the House with a vote of 266-144, addresses this concern by clarifying that the menu labeling regulations are to be applied to “standard menu items,”​ defined as foods prepared uniformly at 20 or more locations, and not a food item sold at one or two stores.

The bill also makes allowances for the layout of grocery stores versus restaurants by allowing supermarkets to use a menu or menu board in a prepared foods area, rather than individually labeling every item.

FMI explains this change would help avoid consumer confusion that could be caused by FDA’s current requirement that items be labeled on a window guard. FMI explained this approach would not work because the order and location of items in a salad or food bar often change and could become mismatched with the window guard.

The bill also would give establishments 90-days to correct violations prior to being penalized for non-compliance.

Additional allowances are made in the bill for convenience stores and take-out restaurants.

Legislators debate flexibility vs. clarity

Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., who introduced the measure, said the rule was about flexibility and not about restricting consumer access to information that would help them make healthier decisions.

Other legislators and the Obama Administration disagree. They argue the bill would deny consumers information about the food and make it more difficult to obtain by not standardizing how it is presented.

While the Obama Administration does not support the legislation, it is not threatening veto if the bill should pass the Senate. 

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