When the United States Supreme Court last week upheld a majority of the provisions within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — better known as Obamacare — with a 5-4 decision, the court also upheld a provision of the act that had many restaurant operators holding their breath — the menu labeling laws mandating the display of nutrition information.
The high court maintained the law requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more locations include detailed nutrition information and calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. The final word on menu labeling laws has been highly anticipated in the both the restaurant and digital signage industries, with the digital signage industry touting digital menu boards as the best solution to a new problem.
Even though it appears there remains some wrangling with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over particulars, the Supreme Court's decision will likely have many in the quick-service and fast casual restaurant segments scrambling to meet the law's new criteria.
According to Valerie Killifer, editor of FastCasual.com, the decision to uphold the law may have come as a surprise to some, and the full measure of ramifications may take some time to become clear.
"I think many operators ... were hoping it wouldn't pass and so didn't prepare much for the Supreme Court's ruling," Killifer said. "Now that there's been a decision, I think operators will begin to assess the damage, so to speak, and figure out a way to move forward. It will have far-reaching effects for many, but what those will be, exactly, I think will take a while to become known."
Scott Koller, president and CEO of digital signage firm and digital menu board solution provider Wireless Ronin Technologies, said the focus on nutrition information isn't going away, no matter what eventually happens to Obamacare.
"It's nice to see movement on the healthcare bill. Regardless of what direction the federal government takes, there will continue to be pressure put on the food service industry to provide accurate nutritional information," Koller said in a recent email. "The New York ban on large-sized sugared drinks is a good indicator that the focus on a healthier diet is not going away. I think we will continue to see local and federal government putting pressure on the food service industry to provide nutritional information and healthier menu choices."
Of course, Koller also said that "implementation of menu boards will seamlessly address the challenges that will come with implementation of this law and allow QSRs to react quickly to any changes in regulations."
Most restaurant chains shouldn't be caught napping, though, and probably had (or should have had) contingency plans ready, according to Cicely Simpson, senior director, Government Affairs, Dunkin' Brands Inc..
"Menu boards are precious real estate. How you display this information and these statements is very important to the business," she said during a panel at the National Restaurant Association show in May. "This isn't something you can do last minute."
Longtime digital signage consultant and analyst Lyle Bunn seemed to agree, writing in a recent email that "the requirement for messaging by food services providers is not unexpected and as approaches to compliance have been considered it has been in the context of inspiring patrons and assuring the sustained health of food services providers."
"The inherent ability of dynamic signage to achieve multiple communication and marketing goals, even simultaneously, ideally suits it to serve this important need," he said. "The maturity of the technology and its proven application mean that food services providers can focus on the business decisions related to its optimal use."
Read more about digital menu boards.