The National Restaurant Association filed comments Tuesday regarding the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) draft menu labeling regulations. The Association was a primary advocate for the menu labeling law, passed in March 2010, that will require restaurant chains with 20 or more locations operating under the same brand to provide detailed nutritional information to consumers, and display calories on the menu, menu board, or drive-thru.

"We encourage the FDA to incorporate our suggested changes in determining the final regulations," said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA. "We want to make it easy for restaurants to share nutrition information with consumers."

Some highlights of the NRA comments include:

Flexibility with Nutrition Disclosure. As written, the law requires nutrition information to be provided in a clear and conspicuous manner. The diversity and complexity of the restaurant industry make providing nutrition information to consumers far more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Greater flexibility is needed in order for operators to present information in a format and manner that works for their operation and customer.

For example, the NRA wants pizza operators to have the flexibility to convey calorie information by the slice, rather than the whole pie.

"Our bottom line is getting the accurate info to the consumer in a way that makes sense to the consumer and then operator," said Scott DeFife, vice executive vice president of the NRA's Policy & Government Affairs. "Ranges can sometimes be the best way, but often are not. There may be times where it's better to provide a base and ask the consumer to do a little math in certain situations than to give them a range that doesn't provide them any real information about the specific choice they are about to make."

Similar Retail Food Establishments. The NRA feels strongly that the FDA should treat "similar retail food establishments" with restaurant-like operations the same under the law.

This includes movie theaters and gas stations that serve food. "But it's more about the fact that they have a restaurant-like operation within them than that they sell food of other sorts," DeFife said. "That is they have to sell food for immediate consumption and have menus or menu boards."

Reasonable Basis Standard. The Association calls for the FDA to follow congressional intent, captured by statute, that restaurant operators use the "reasonable basis" standard. The reasonable basis standard has been recognized by the FDA for 20 years in determining nutrition calculations required by the law, rather than a standard used for packaged foods produced in a food processing facility.

1-Year Implementation. Rather than a 6-month timeline which the FDA proposed, the NRA believes that given the challenges and costs associated with creating new menus and menu boards, a 1-year implementation period will help restaurants more effectively absorb the additional burden (with many of the franchisees impacted being small business owners).

The FDA's goal is to have the final regulations out by the end of the year, and then it will be a minimum six months for effective date -- if the FDA doesn't grant the 1-year timeframe requested by the NRA. Compliance deadlines could be set as early as mid-2012, DeFife said.

Click here to watch an interview with DeFife at this year's Pizza Executive Summit, where he discusses the regulations.

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