Pizza operators ask DC for menu labeling flexibility

A group of pizza executives descended upon Washington, D.C., last week, to ask the Domestic Policy Council for menu labeling flexibility as part of the impending Obamacare legislation.

Representatives from Domino's, Pizza Hut, Sbarro, Rosati's, Rocky Rococo, Fresh Brothers and more were joined by the National Restaurant Association's Scott DeFife, EVP, Policy & Government Affairs, and Dan Roehl, senior director of Government Affairs, to meet with Domestic Policy staff on industry-related issues surfacing from the legislation.

Executives made their pitch for alternative solutions to the law's required nutritional labeling on menus and in-store menu boards, pointing to the complexities of measuring such specifics for a variable product such as pizza. Marla Topliff, president of Rosati's Pizza based in Chicago, provided highlights of the meeting.

"All of us brought up concerns that affected each of us in a different way, but we had a common goal to come up with a more logical solution to approach this legislation that makes sense for the operators and our customers," she said. "What we're looking for is more options and more flexibility."

The group pointed out several "potential issues," including variability, serving sizes, carry-out/delivery vs. dining in and changeability.

Variability: The pizza segment, the sandwich segment and the donut and ice cream segments all face similar challenges with the menu labeling requirements: Variability. Variable menu items are defined in the proposed rule as a "standard menu item that comes in different flavors, varieties or combinations and is listed as a single menu item." However, challenges abound.

"There are probably a million combinations if not more for pizza. So our concern is making sure we're doing this right and communicating it right to the customer, but how do we put it all on the menu? We have limited space," Topliff said.

One response has been to include nutritional information for a basic cheese pizza and every topping option.

"But different operators may use different amounts of cheese or sauce. And we are then asking our customers to do math, or a 16-year-old employee working the counter to do math. It's definitely not ideal for anyone," Topliff added.

Serving sizes: Speaking of math, in the Food and Drug Administration's proposed rules, pizza-specific serving sizes aren't clearly defined. The FDA notes it has filed comments from operators who received consumer complaints when calories were declared for whole pizzas (as is already required by some jurisdictions). The comments, according to the docket, "stated that the consumers claimed that this type of declaration was confusing and impractical, and they asserted that calorie information should be disclosed per slice."

However, Topliff points out that "slices" differ by brand and even franchisee. "No two people cut their pizza slices the same," she said.

One common solution, included in the proposed rule, is in offering a range of calories for whole pizzas on menu boards. So for example, an extra large whole pizza with two toppings can range from X calories to Y calories. This, however, has alarmed a lot of consumers, Topliff said, because they tend to focus on the higher-end of the range even if they're eating only a slice or two.

"The idea of having a range has its problems. If you eat a slice or two then you have to divide and it can be very inaccurate. And again, it's more math. We don't want our customers to have to figure this stuff out," Topliff said.

Carry out/delivery vs. in-store: Also as part of the proposed rule, "covered establishments are required to post calories and other information on menus and menu boards."

This is the case even for a brand like Domino's, which gets about 90 percent of its business from delivery orders; customers who will never see the inside of the store.

"We're in the pizza business and for most of us, customers don't come in to our stores, so having menu boards is sort of useless. But it's required by this law to have them with calorie counts. Menu boards are not necessary for most of us, and they're really expensive," Topliff said.

This is another area pizza operators are seeking flexibility, but Topliff admits she's at a loss for ideal solutions. Domino's has an in-store and online menu calorie calculator, and some brands have QR codes on their menus that lead customers to calorie information.

"I like these ideas as an alternative to menu boards; having a menu calculator available in store, maybe on an iPad or something similar. I like the idea of having an online menu calculator or a QR code leading to a menu calculator. But technology can never be mandated because of the expense," Topliff said. "I do, however, think if you're looking at a one-time upfront cost, it would be cheaper to implement any one of these ideas versus menu boards."

Changeability: The final major issue is the potential of menu and supplier changes. When new permanent menu items are added, or a recipe changes, nutritionals have to be calculated and that information has to be included on menu displays. In a volatile commodities market, this problem is compounded, according to Topliff.

"We've changed pepperoni manufacturers before because we decided we were paying too much. We've changed the amount of cream and cheese in our Alfredo sauce. These changes can make a huge difference in calories. And what if we've already ordered our menus? We'd have to re-do them. Also, now with beef and cheese and pork prices going up and down, a lot of operators will consider changing manufacturers to cut costs," she said. "This will be an issue across the entire restaurant industry."

Flexibility and options

The group that went to DC isn't asking for an abolishment of the regulations, just more flexibility. For example, if changes are made to the menu, more time should be allotted for updates because of the cost, without the possibility of getting penalized, Topliff said.

"Nobody's objecting to this. We want to make it easier and more transparent for our customers. It's just how we're being asked to do it. It is very confusing right now," she said. "The way they're asking us to do it now is restrictive, not transparent. We just need to figure out how to put it all out there in a way that makes sense."

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Ron Lane
    The pizza companies could put the calorie information on the receipts.
  • Dennis Noce
    I believe all restaurants impacted by incremental costs from the new labeling laws should receive tax credits. If the government is really focused on providing more information for the consumer, then allowing the restaurant operators to write off the entire cost of providing that information should not be an issue.
  • Robert Wilson
    Even gov't suffers from gov't. I used to be an elected official in a small locality. We always struggled with what we called the issue of unfunded mandates. These were new rules or regulations or policies that the county or state or federal governments required us to implement at a local level. However the rule writers never considered the cost of implementing such policies on a small local government unit That had no means of increasing revenues to cover these costs. Well meaning rule writers rarely stop to consider the ability and financial capability of those they require to carry out their great ideas. This is just another great example of that misguided concept.
  • Nick Rotolo
    In the most part do people really count calories? If you are on a diet you don’t eat it because it obvious to you it has more calories. The actual number count means nothing to people.
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