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While chain restaurants have been mostly supportive of the new regulations requiring calorie counts to be posted on menus and menu boards, food retailers offering prepared foods have been less than enthusiastic.
The requirement, which took effect May 7, 2018, is part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. However, the menu-labeling regulations took eight years to implement as regulators and industry groups wrestled with the details, and operators scrambled to get their recipes analyzed and their menu displays revamped.
The menu-labeling law requires that retailers with 20 or more outlets offering restaurant-type foods post calorie counts for each prepared food item they carry. The intention is to help consumers to make more informed choices about the items they select in the hopes that they will use the information to opt for more healthful diets.
The supermarket and convenience store industries had argued that the requirements were designed for restaurant operators and were cumbersome to implement in retail venues because of the unique nature of their prepared foods offerings. Eventually, however, retailers accepted the new requirements in the interest of transparency.
“Food retailers want to be as transparent as possible and provide customers with the nutritional information they desire in order to make the most informed choices for their health and families,” Dana Mullen, regulatory counsel for the Food Marketing Institute, wrote in a blog post.
Here are some of the ways retailers and foodservice operators have managed the transition:
Getting an early start
Many of the largest supermarket and restaurant chains began posting calorie counts well ahead of the May 7 deadline, prompted by the patchwork of local laws requiring calorie labeling that had already emerged in such places as New York and certain municipalities in Washington state and California. In many cases, the chains tested consumer response before rolling the changes out nationwide.
Among food retailers, Kroger Co., Albertsons, Whole Foods Market and 7-Eleven were among the early adopters of calorie posting.
At Jewel-Osco, the Albertsons-owned banner in the Chicago market, the chain decided to begin posting calorie counts on menus a year ahead of time, in part because the retailer had already prepared for the requirement and because it wanted to be transparent with customers.
“We decided it was the right thing to do,” the company told the Chicago Tribune last year.
Seattle-based Starbucks also was among the leaders in rolling out calorie information on its menus when it did so at all U.S. locations in 2013.
“Starbucks has been transparent about what’s in our food and drinks for many years,” says a spokeswoman for the cafe chain. “Menu labeling is one way our customers and partners [employees] can easily access information about the food and beverages we offer and understand all the ways that they can customize their beverages to be within their desired calorie range.”
Revamping menu boards
Starbucks timed the posting of its calorie counts with the rollout of new seasonal menus, which helped minimize the cost of updating its menu displays. But some operators say they have incurred tens of thousands of dollars in costs for new menu boards to meet the requirements.
Back Yard Burgers spent $50,000 to comply with the new regulations, according to USA Today, which included consulting with a nutritionist and rolling out new menu boards to all 55 of its locations. Quick-service seafood chain Captain D’s also took the opportunity to debut new menu boards in connection with the new law, the article says.
Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer and wholesaler SpartanNash, meanwhile, introduced digital menu boards last year in 83 Family Fare Supermarkets, which allowed it to update menu displays and calorie counts. The retailer also installed signs in bakeries on bulk items such as donuts and rolls, as well as on salad bars and fresh grab-and-go items such as sushi, soups and sandwiches.
“We want our store guests to make informed, better-for-you decisions when it comes to their meal options and portion sizes, and we believe the steps we have taken equip them to do just that,” says Larry Pierce, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing at SpartanNash.
To account for slight variations in recipes for hot items such as fried chicken, SpartanNash maintains an extensive ingredient database in its Family Fare stores’ recipe management system, which is connected to the digital menu boards to allow for real-time updates.
Finding the right partner
Another challenge operators face is ensuring that their calorie counts are accurate. This is especially true for retailers, who often create menu items using foods from other departments that might otherwise go to waste, such as bruised produce or items nearing their expiration date.
Nutritionist Allison Tannenbaum, who has worked with restaurants to analyze the nutritional content of their menu items, says different nutritional analyses of the same menu items can often vary and sometimes be inaccurate.
“It does help with mindfulness as consumers make choices about what to eat, despite inaccuracies in the information,” she says.
One way retailers can ensure their menu labeling as accurate and compliant is by partnering with a third-party analytics firm.
“Operators have to be ready and willing to have the required information at their fingertips,” says Jill Carte, category manager of kitchen automation at DayMark Safety Systems. “This can be a challenge, especially for small businesses which may not have access to the labs and databases that provide this data. We hope to help them with that through Nutritics.”
Nutritics, a cloud-based recipe ingredient analysis platform which is available in the U.S. exclusively through DayMark, possesses a robust database of items, which allows operators to change recipes on the fly, she says.
“This will help drive down costs by preventing spoilage and allowing the restaurant to be more agile in making and recalculating those changes,” says Carte. “Operators will no longer be burdened with sending recipe changes which may have happened in the moment to an outside lab or another facility or service to calculate those changes — they can do it instantaneously on their computer.”
The data can then be pushed into DayMark’s MenuPilot app, generating updated information for grab-and-go item labels and menu displays as needed.
“Further, with this information displayed on the digital menu boards in real time, calorie counts are updated instantaneously and there is no concern over printed content expiring,” says Carte.