When President Obama signed the health reform bill last February, he also signed national menu labeling into law. The FDA is now proposing rules for how calorie labeling will work in practice. The proposed rules are posted on the FDA website and in the Federal Register. The FDA is seeking public comment on its draft guidance for industry.

The law says that restaurant chains with more than 20 units nationally must post by March 23, 2011:

    • The number of calories in each standard menu item "as usually prepared and offered for sale" (the calorie disclosure must be "clear and conspicuous" and "adjacent to" the name of the standard menu item)

    • A statement that puts the calorie information in the context of a total daily caloric intake, and

    • A statement regarding the availability of the written nutrition information

In my previous posts and writings about calorie labeling, I've been concerned about several problems I've observed in the implementation of New York City's calorie labeling program. Here's how the FDA proposes to address them. FDA's rules are below, with my comments in bold and italics:

Not displaying calories at all: A "menu" or "menu board" is "the primary writing of the restaurant or other similar retail food establishment from which a consumer makes an order selection. FDA considers primary writing to include all forms of primary writing, such as dessert menus, beverage menus, or other specialty type menus. I think this means that if a restaurant has a menu board, it has to post calories on the board. If it only has menus, the calories have to be on the menus.

Displaying calories in absurdly precise numbers: Calorie disclosure should be expressed in the nearest 5-calorie increments for menu items containing up to and including 50 calories, and in 10-calorie increments above 50 calories, except that amounts less than 5 calories may be expressed as zero. This is fine. Measuring calories isn't all that precise anyway.

Displaying absurdly large ranges of calories: FDA will not require posting calories of variable menu items and combination meals until FDA issues a final rule. FDA will provide recommended language in the proposed rule. Uh oh. The FDA must be having a hard time figuring out what to do about this one.

Displaying incorrect values for calories: A restaurant shall have a reasonable basis for its nutrient content disclosures, including nutrient databases, cookbooks, laboratory analyses, and other reasonable means. What "reasonable" means is debatable but this ought to work within a an error of 10 percent or so. We will have to see how this one plays out.

If you want to weigh in on these proposed rules, now is the time to comment. You can do this easily at Docket FDA-2010-N-0298.