Partnering on Calorie Counts

With just 238 days until calorie counts must appear on drink menus in chain restaurant and other multiunit on-premise locations, many operators are scrambling to assemble the necessary calorie and nutrition information. They’re also striving to gain clarity about the requirements to have compliant menus in place by the December 1 deadline. The issue shines a light on the importance of strong operator-supplier partnerships.

A provision of the Affordable Care Act, the FDA regulation mandates all foodservice providers operating in 20 or more locations with standard or substantially similar menus present calorie information for food, beverages and alcohol drinks, and make additional nutritional information readily available. Alcohol beverages had been exempt from previous versions. Affected operators include restaurants, hotels, convenience and grocery store foodservice areas, pizza and ice cream shops, theme parks, bowling alleys and movie theaters. The regulations replace a patchwork of local and state regulations.

In crafting the regulations, the FDA asserts it sought to not overburden on-premise operators, but the onus is on the operator to develop and display the information accurately and appropriately. Given the breadth and depth of some drink menus, adding calorie counts to drink menus is a daunting task.

One of the biggest questions raised during a workshop on the topic during last week’s VIBE Conference in Las Vegas was where operators can obtain this information. The FDA is fairly open regarding sourcing, and references the USDA National Nutrient Database as a starting point. However, operators on the panel moderated by Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano expressed concerns that the database is incomplete and doesn’t account for the myriad beer styles, for example, and are afraid they’ll be held accountable for presenting inaccurate information.

Operators including Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar are committing internal personnel, including dieticians, to sourcing and developing the information; some are engaging independent firms to conduct analysis of menu items. Documentation of the information development process is required.

Alcohol and drink mixer suppliers can expect to receive requests for caloric and nutritional information about their products. Although the regulations do not require suppliers to provide it, operators are turning to their supplier partners. This puts spirits, wine and beer producers, importers and marketers in a tricky position, as nutritional information is not required by the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which oversees alcohol labeling (calories must be included if a beer is presented as “light” or “lite”). In 2013, the agency allowed voluntary inclusion of serving facts information on labels. Recently, Diageo announced it would begin including serving facts on packaging for its global brands.

Most major suppliers can readily provide the necessary nutritional information, but smaller ones such as craft brewers and distillers, boutique wineries and even small producers of mixers may be challenged to do so, as may foreign producers. One supplier asked the operator panelists at the VIBE workshop whether inability to provide such information might jeopardize a brand or product’s position on a drink menu. The answer: If the operator is unable to obtain or otherwise develop the calorie and nutrition information, the drink might have to be pulled. That would be a worst-case scenario, the panel assured the audience, as no operator wants to remove a popular drink or one that supports the unique aspects of their concept. But the message is clear.

Drink menus across the country will look vastly different come December, and most operators are in high gear on this issue. Many nuances of the regulations remain unspecified, but the FDA is expected to release clarifications regarding alcohol in the next few weeks. Operators may email specific inquiries to the FDA at CalorieLabeling@fda.hhs.gov.

The key to ensuring compliance is to get moving now. Operators must identify all drinks offered, including ingredients and quantities, and develop the required nutritional information. Suppliers must be ready to field those inquiries and respond quickly. Strong supplier partners will support operators as they strive to fulfill these requirements.

This post is part of a series about alcohol calorie information on foodservice menus, including the basics on the new regulations and consumer behaviors related to calorie information.

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Donna Hood Crecca

A veteran of the foodservice industry, Donna Hood Crecca leads the firm’s Convenience Store Practice and is active in its Adult Beverage Practice. She develops research-based insights and recommendations for leading and emerging supplier and operator companies to enhance their go-to-market and product development programs and strategies.

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