CHICAGO -- Food and Drug Administration rules due to go into effect this week will require any operation that serves food to the public and makes a nutrition or health claim for the food to be able to prove the claim is reasonable.
The implementation of the rules and the burden they will place on food-service providers were topics of discussion at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference, held here last month.
"If you have menu items with low-fat or heart-healthy claims and haven't done anything about it, you better decide what to do about your health claims," warned Patricia Godfrey, registered dietitian and president of Nutrition & Food Associates -- NutriForm, based in Plymouth, Minn., which manufactures nutrition analysis, labeling and culinary software.
"If claims like 'low-fat' or 'heart-healthy' are made on a restaurant menu, then you must demonstrate that there is a reasonable basis that the food qualifies for the claim," Godfrey said. During a seminar at the IACP conference, she read from the FDA's final Restaurant Labeling Rule and the Small Business Labeling Rule to emphasize what is being required of food-service operators. The final rule was published by the FDA in August 1996, with a compliance date of May 2, 1997.
According to the rules, food-service establishments must have on hand documentation for any health or nutrition claim, and nutrition labeling information must be provided upon request for any restaurant food or meal for which the operator makes a nutrient-content or health claim, she said.
"These rules are not just a flash in the pan. Many in food service thought these nutrition labeling rules would just go away. But they won't and they're here to stay," she said.
The change in food labeling laws had been driven by pressure from consumer groups and by the growing number of restaurants making misleading or unsubstantiated claims about their foods, Godfrey noted.
She cited examples, such as what Pizzeria Uno called a"low-fat" pizza possessing between 14 and 36 grams of fat; and Chili's claim that their "guiltless fajitas" had 17 grams of fat, when tests showed they sometimes had 30 grams per serving.
Godfrey also said claims like those made by Legal Seafood about headache-relieving herbs had also pushed the FDA toward more stringent rules.
Under the rules, information that can substantiate any low-fat, low-sugar or beneficial health claims for items can be presented in a variety of manners, she said, including in-store fliers, brochures, posters, placards or right on menus. The rules can also be satisfied if employees are prepared to provide information orally.
The rules do provide some opportunities for savvy food-service operators to establish the health value of their foods, she added.
In one instance, a restaurateur in Texas spent $10,000 to establish the levels of fat, sodium and other components in his dishes, and has been able to build business with a menu on which all items are clearly labeled.
One good source for nutrition labeling information is volume 61 number 150 of the Federal Register dated August 8, 1996.
An FDA publication, "Food Labeling Questions and Answers, Volume II," and the National Restaurant Association's "Practical Guide to the Nutrition Labeling Law for the Restaurant Industries" can also be helpful for those struggling to meet the new rules, Godfrey said.