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Election Year 2012 seemed to go on forever, didn't it? Now that it's over maybe officials in Washington can turn their attention to a few overdue issues of great importance to the restaurant industry and consumers interested in what's in the food they are eating.
Restaurants are most concerned about final rules for menu labeling required under the Affordable Care Act signed into law in 2010. How the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will interpret the requirements, whether convenience stores will be required to post the nutritional content of items prepared on the premises, how long establishments will have to comply with the new standards, and several other issues were supposed to be resolved over a year ago.
Some big chains, like McDonald's, have already reaped big marketing benefits ahead of the final rules by disclosing calorie counts and other information that will be required anyway.
Smaller outfits – especially those without multiple locations that won't be required to comply with the FDA rules – should follow their lead and make nutritional information available now on the menu and specials board, as well as the restaurant's website. Your patrons will greatly appreciate it, and you will be ahead of your competitors whenever the final rules do come down.
Consumers looking for standardized labeling of gluten-free foods have also been in limbo, expecting clarification of the Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act of 2004. The FDA was supposed to issue those final standards by 2008 – but we're still waiting.
As gluten-free diets have moved from medical necessity to the latest fad, more people are looking for reliable, easy-to-understand labeling on packaged foods as well as when they go out to eat. Without standards, it's hard to know whether current labels are fact or hype.
Each day we are assisting restaurants to "certify" their GF menu items, and finding that the chef believes something is gluten free only for us to discover that in fact it is not. Be careful about labeling what you know vs. what you think you know on your menu. Guests are becoming more and more aware of being "Glutened" and letting others know about the false sense of security.
By 2011, the organization 1in133.org gathered 10,000 signatures on a petition to the FDA to get on with it already. While the FDA did release draft regulations for comment in August of that year, by November 2012, the final rules are still pending.
Part of the problem is the sheer volume of comments received, but once the FDA has sifted through them all and written the final rules, the rules still have to go over to the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House for review before they can be published in the Federal Register.
There can be no doubt that Washington knows the people demand better gluten-free labeling. More than 25,000 people signed an online petition at the White House's We the People web page before it closed on Nov. 2. With the election out of the way, it's up to the regulators to respond.
We're all waiting to hear.
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