A health subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday heard testimony regarding legislation that is intended to reduce the burdens of federal calorie-labeling regulations governing menus at restaurants and other food establishments.
Sonja Yates Hubbard, a representative for the convenience store industry, is among the food executives who expressed support for the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 (H.R. 2017) during a hearing before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. The bill was sponsored by Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) and Loretta Sanchez (D-California).
“Unless the regulations are revised, consumers’ access to a whole variety of affordable food options may be limited," said Hubbard, the CEO of E-Z Mart Stores, Inc. in Texarkana, Texas.
Hubbard said most food sold in convenience stores already contains nutrition information and the manner in which fresh food is prepared at such establishments differs from chain restaurants.
“The FDA’s final rule exhibits very little understanding of this reality," she said in prepared testimony. “H.R. 2017 would rectify this by providing retailers greater flexibility to comply with federal menu labeling requirements in a manner that minimizes unnecessary compliance burdens without compromising consumers’ ability to receive nutrition information."
Rep. Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania who chairs the health subcommittee, said that according to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) the menu-labeling regulation was considered the third most burdensome one proposed in 2010.
In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released the final regulations, which were adopted under the Affordable Care Act and are intended to help consumers make more informed choices about the food they consume away from home. Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said restaurants and similar food establishments have until Dec. 1 to comply with the regulations.
“Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families," Margaret Hamburg, then FDA’s commissioner, said at the time the final regulations were adopted.
But the food industry has complained that the regulations fail to consider differences in how food is prepared by and ordered at various establishments, such as a pizzeria.
For instance, at one Domino’s store in Michigan during one day that was witnessed, only two percent of customers used the menu to place an order, while 91 percent of orders were placed online or on the phone, said Lynn Liddle, a Domino’s executive and chairperson of the American Pizza Community, in prepared testimony.
“To us, it makes absolutely no sense to ‘retrofit’ this information on a menu board which the vast majority doesn’t even use," Liddle said.
Critics of the menu-labeling regulations also raised concerns over the penalties for noncompliance, including the potential for criminal prosecution.
“We believe that a business should be required to show that it has made reasonable efforts to correctly depict calorie information," Liddle said. “And, I hope we can all agree that inadvertently putting too many toppings on a pizza should not result in crippling fines and threats of jail time."
H.R. 2017 would “revise the menu labeling rule’s enforcement regime to strike an appropriate balance between any noncompliance and potential punishment," Hubbard said.
The legislation also is intended to ensure that the definition of menu would not be interpreted so broadly as to require nutrition information on things like flyers, coupons and social media.
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest said it opposed the bill. “Congress should not hand out special-interest political favors to supermarkets, convenience stores, or pizza chains—all of which are lobbying for special treatment that would let them hide from consumers the calorie counts for their restaurant-type foods," said Margo Wootan, CSPI nutrition policy director, in a statement.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from California, wrote in a recent letter to Pitts, “Providing unwarranted exceptions to supermarkets, convenience stores, pizza chains, movie theaters, and others would not only undermine the purpose of menu labeling—to give consumers more information about the food they eat—but would also create an uneven playing field for business competition."
A representative of Dunkin Brands, Inc.—the parent company of Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robins—said the food industry faced “a patchwork of varying state and local menu labeling regulations throughout the United States" before FDA’s regulations were adopted. Karen Raskopf, chief communications officer with Dunkin Brands, also was largely complementary of FDA and opposed a provision of H.R. 2017 that would exempt grocery and convenience stores from the regulations if a percentage of certain food sales failed to meet a particular threshold.
“The benefits of nutrition labeling are important," Raskopf said, “no matter the size of the menu or the percentage of sales from food."