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I had an absolute blast, as always, at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago last week. I reconnected with old friends, met some awesome new people, and had a great time talking about food and the restaurant industry for three days.
One of the topics that came up over and over but went nowhere was the status of the FDA's menu labeling regulations. Implementation of this portion of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 is now officially one year overdue, and may be another six months out. Even the highly anticipated extended deadline has come and gone, and still no final word on what nutrition information chain restaurants and owners of food vending machines with more than 20 outlets will be required to disclose.
We know what the preliminary regulations published a year ago require: nutrition information, including calories per item, will be provided to consumers and displayed clearly and conspicuously on the menu, menu board, or drive-thru sign. Sounds simple, but the devil is in the details.
Last July, the NRA and many other organizations provided comments to the FDA on some of those details, suggesting flexibility to make the requirements more workable for both chains and smaller operations that can participate on a voluntary basis. The comments covered issues such as the interpretation of "clear and conspicuous," standard calculation of nutritional content, and applying the law to all establishments with "similar retail food operations."
That last one has proven more contentious than the feds anticipated. Convenience stores have mounted a full-court press for a de facto exemption from the rules, which were included in the health-care reform act to combat the nation's growing obesity epidemic. It's hard to put together a healthy diet when most of your meals come from the pre-packaged fare available where you fill your gas tank.
Granted, those wrapped-up breakfast burritos already carry nutrition labeling, but the roller-dogs don't. And there were no fewer than three educational sessions at the NRA show to help c-store owners upgrade and expand their foodservice operations to compete in the quick-service market space. The takeaway? C-stores should act more like restaurants than gas stations.
That should mean playing by the same rules as restaurants, including menu labeling – whenever the FDA regs come out. And the ongoing delay is more than annoying. Because rules will require state laws to conform to the federal standards, states from Maine to California have put enforcement and implementation of their own regulations on hold.
So, what's an operator to do? Independents have a golden opportunity to get ahead of the issue and begin giving their customers the nutritional information they crave now. While the big guys wrestle with the devilish details, you can be building a relationship of trust and loyalty with your patrons that can have heavenly rewards.