The FDA's Menu-Labeling Rule

A waitress serves a customer at the counter of a cafe.

What's the Issue

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandated that many chain restaurants and other “similar” food establishments list the calorie count of the food they sell. The requirement will take effect nationwide in December 2016, more than six and a half years after the ACA became law.

The regulations, promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a final rule released December 1, 2014, affect only “standard menu items” sold in restaurants and other places that sell ready-to-eat food and are part of chains with at least twenty stores. The requirements are threefold: Each menu item must have a clearly visible calorie
count, and each food establishment must post two statements, one noting that the average daily intake is 2,000 calories and another letting customers know that detailed nutritional information about each menu item is available on request.

There are exceptions: Daily specials and items sold by food trucks or on airplanes or trains are exempt from the labeling requirements, as are many alcoholic drinks. But made-to-order sandwiches, take-out food and salad bar items in restaurants and grocery stores, and food sold in movie theatres must all meet the new requirements.

New York City began mandating calorie counts of chain restaurant food in 2007. The new national rules were backed by the restaurant industry’s trade association, the National Restaurant Association, in an effort to achieve uniformity nationwide and to avoid a growing patchwork of separate state and municipal regulations.

So far, most studies, including a 2015 metaanalysis, show that providing menu nutrition labeling results in virtually no statistically significant change in calorie consumption.

What's Next

One of the major unresolved issues involving the new rules is determining who will enforce them. States, cities, or counties that pass laws identical to the federal regulations can use their own local inspectors to enforce the rules, or the FDA can possibly contract out local officials to do the inspections even if there is no corresponding local law. The FDA also has its own team of inspectors who check food manufacturing facilities, and who could be used to visit establishments with potential menu-labeling violations.

For now, the FDA continues to issue advice on how the final rule should be implemented, including a thirty-four-page “small entity compliance guide” it released in March 2015 that restates the requirements “in plain language.” The one-year extension before the rule finally takes effect in December 2016 should give reluctant businesses the additional time they need to prepare.

Media Contacts

Melissa Blair

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-5937

Additional Media Contact: Sue Ducat

Health Affairs (301) 841-9962