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What’s on the Menu? A Look at the New FDA Quick Serve Restaurant (QSR) Labeling Requirements

We recently reported in to our clients about a little-known element of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) that will require many QSRs (Quick Serve Restaurants) to provide specific calorie and nutrition information to their customers and on their menus. Mandated by the legislation, it was left to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to implement.

In December, the FDA has released final rules on the labeling as it applies to the QSRs meeting certain criteria (including as to the number of locations in the chain). Essentially, food that is consumed on the premises or available by take-out is covered by the regulations. Items excluded are condiments, daily specials, or purely “display” elements such as beverage bottles at bars or decorative displays.

Some QSRs have already been following this practice, at least in part. Panera Bread highlights new offerings because of their health and nutritional value. Now others will do the same, required to provide to customers information as to total calories; calories from fat; total fat; saturated fat; trans fat; cholesterol; sodium; total carbohydrate; dietary fiber; sugars; and protein. It’s quite like the FDA nutrition labeling that can be found on everything today from cereal boxes to cans of soup and bottles of juice.

Menu labeling is an extension of widespread concern over weight-related health risks in the US and the desire by many public health specialists to help consumers make more informed eating decisions. As in retail, consumers have more options available to them each year, and the delivery methods are getting easier. Along with new restaurants come mobile apps that can be used to purchase and receive food by delivery. Without wait lines, QSR has taken on a new meaning and consumers need not even leave their living room to order a burger and fries.

With the fast growing category of qQSRs providing healthier options and aggressively marketing those options, for this sector the FDA’s rules may be both a mandate and a marketing opportunity to help consumers make more informed choices.

There are the obvious first and tactical changes that customers will see under this regulatory structure. Signage and menu boards at QSRs subject to rules will need to change. Longer-term, if consumers respond to the new transparency and begin making choices based on content and not just taste or desire, there may be further health-oriented changes coming to retail food marketing. As consumers become accustomed to seeing nutritional information on their food choices, they may forego an unhealthy item.

Whether or not this development will help with the issues of overall obesity or not remains to be seen. Opinion on the topic varies widely; some believe this is a trend in the right direction; others believe that when someone wants a cheeseburger, they want one regardless - -or even fully aware - - of its nutritional attributes. The one thing we do know is that change is coming to the QSR world. Those ubiquitous, bright, backlit displays enticing consumers with mouth-watering shots of their food may have to compete with the sobering reality of the numbers behind it all.

Related topics: Restaurants, Retail