More than 80 members of the health community came together Tuesday to demand that the Obama Administration improve the new set of rules requiring calorie labeling on menus and vending machines. 

The proposed regulations, put forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in April, are a result of the health care reform act of 2010, which mandated that restaurants and owners of vending machines post calorie counts alongside food offerings.


Now, as the comment period comes to a close, organizations including the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have expressed concern expressed concern that the current provisions don’t apply to all types of eating establishments, and that vending machines will not have to post calorie counts directly next to their corresponding foods.


The group recommended 3 key changes to the labeling rules. These include:


— Extend the definition of “restaurants and similar establishments” to include all venues that sell food, including movie theaters, bowling alleys, casinos, stadiums, cafes in superstores, hotels and airlines, all of which are exempt from the current law, which states that only businesses who dedicate over 50 percent of their floor to food service must post calorie information.


— Require calorie labels for alcoholic beverages on menus. The law as it stands does not require calorie information for these drinks, although they are the fifth largest source of calories in an American adult’s diet.


— Require vending machine operators to post calorie information directly next to the product it describes, rather than on a sign next to the machine.


“When Congress passed the menu labeling requirements they didn’t just require labeling at chain restaurants,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI in an interview with Food Safety News.


“If a pizza place has to have calorie labeling for their pizza, why shouldn’t a movie theater label their pizza? It’s unfair to traditional restaurants if their competitors don’t have to label, and it’s more helpful to consumers to have nutrition information in as many places as possible,” she says.


People may not eat at these entertainment eateries every day, or even every week, says Wootan, but the calorie-loaded foods on movie theater menus mean that they pack more punch.


“They can really do a lot of damage to your diet and weight,” she says.


The coalition also asked that bulk vending machines, the kind that serve candy such as gumballs or M&Ms out-of-packaging, be encompassed in the rules, which currently exclude these types of dispensers, meaning that 20 percent of vending machine food will go unlabeled.


In a June letter to Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of FDA, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who championed the labeling legislation in 2010, expressed their disappointment with the “restaurant” definition as well, and said the drafted rules need more stringent guidelines for determining nutritional content.


So far, calorie labeling pilot programs, such as the one that requires all New York chain restaurants to post calories on menus, have had mixed success in changing consumers’ ordering habits.


study published in February showed that parents did not change what they ordered for their children after reading posted calorie labels, and that 16 percent of adolescents reported these nutrition facts as having an impact on their choices.


However, Wootan says, the fact that labeling had an effect at all is a positive sign.


“From a public health standpoint, that is pretty darn good,” she said. “I think a lot of times people outside of public health expect that everyone will change, and they’ll drastically change the way they eat, but that’s not the way things happen.”


She also says consumers need time to become accustomed to calorie information and how to interpret it.


“It’s been decades that people have been eating out and haven’t had nutrition information and so they’re not really used to seeing it. Over time, people will get used to having it.”


Figuring out what ingredients equate to what calorie count will be an important lesson for food vendors as well, she says.


“We’re actually already seeing that there’s been a lot of reformulation in restaurants just from the small number of menu labeling policies that are already in effect,” said Wootan.


And what about serving size? Are dinners going to appear to be a nice healthy 500 calories, but turn out to have 3 servings per dish?


“No fine print,” Wootan says. “The requirement is for calories per item as it’s offered for sale.”
Wootan hopes that FDA will take these proposed changes into account before publishing the final calorie regulations.


“I think the White House has narrowed the scope of menu labeling from what Congress envisioned,” says Wootan.


Since people consume about a third of their calories outside the home, she says these labels will be a helpful tool for combatting obesity.


The proposal states that people eat around 30 percent of their calories outside the home.


 “I think the White House has narrowed the scope of menu labeling from what Congress envisioned,” says Wootan.