Tuesday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a preliminary draft of the restaurant menu labeling rules that will go into effect on March 23, 2011. The FDA is inviting comment from the public on the proposed rules. The agency is also inviting public recommendations to help determine the amount of time it should hold off enforcing the new rules, allowing the many companies affected to fully comply.

fettucine-alfredo-featured.jpgA section of the health care legislation passed in March mandates that restaurants clearly display calorie information on menus, including sit down and drive through menus. Food Safety News reported that the FDA has been looking for public comment since early July. The comments they received helped shape the draft guidelines released on Tuesday.

The new rules will apply to many different types of eateries, ranging from the deli sandwich counter at your local grocery store to fast food establishments and sit down restaurants like Red Lobster, Applebee’s and Olive Garden. The general rule is that any restaurant with twenty or more locations is required to label products with calorie information.  This rule also includes vending machines.

The diversity among current city and state laws has resulted in a patchwork of different menu labeling standards across the nation. The new rules will streamline the labeling process and give every consumer equal access to nutrition content.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) co-authored the legislation upon which the draft guidelines are based back in 2003. They worked closely with the restaurant industry and public health officials to craft this section of the health care law which they claim to be a bipartisan and broadly endorsed provision.

“This is a great step forward towards ensuring that Americans will be able to make more informed choices about the food they are eating, which will help to combat obesity, cut health care costs, and improve and enhance our lives. The FDA’s efforts in making this a reality are admirable, as is the cooperation and participation of the restaurant industry as we move forward,” said DeLauro in a press release from her office. “With childhood obesity rates tripling over the last 30 years, this legislation is absolutely imperative to the health of our nation.”

“The issuance of today’s guidance regarding menu labeling is an important step in efforts to empower consumers by giving them the information necessary to make sound decisions about their health,” said Harkin in a statement.  “And the endorsement of this effort by the restaurant industry and the public health community demonstrates just how far this effort has come.  Just as consumers embraced the nutrition information on packaged foods when Congress made it available 20 years ago, so too will they use similar information at chain restaurants when the requirements of menu labeling are fully implemented.”

The draft guidelines can be viewed here.