Coming Soon to a Restaurant Near You: Calorie Counts

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

They knew it was coming. Last March, the federal health-care reform bill warned all U.S. chain restaurants that, before long, they would need to start posting calorie counts for each of their menu items. Yesterday the Food and Drug Administration released draft guidelines for the new rules — offering a sneak-peak at what America’s restaurants might look like when the law takes effect in March 2011.

Among the highlights:

  • All restaurants or food outlets with 20 or more branches in the United States must post calorie counts for their menu items. That means the rules apply to chains such as Starbucks, McDonalds, Applebee’s and many, many more.
  • The calorie counts need to be listed prominently on menus and menu boards, including drive-thru menu boards. Counts must appear in a font that’s at least as big as the name of the menu item or the price — whichever is bigger on the menu — and should be given “the same prominence, i.e., the same color and contrasting background as the menu item,” according to a Q&A document from the government.
  • Customers can request other nutritional info too, including fat content, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbs, sugars, fiber and total protein. That info doesn’t need to be displayed prominently, however.
  • The rules won’t apply to restaurant’s daily specials, custom orders or temporary menu items that are offered less than 60 days per year. Those short-term items are exempt from the rules to avoid excessive work for restauranteurs, generating counts and updating menus all the time.
  • Vending-machine operators with 20 or more machines must also post calorie counts.

The FDA is soliciting feedback on the proposed rules. But, according to Reuters, the agency also says it won’t enforce the rules immediately once they take effect next spring. The federal regulators want to give restaurants enough time to make the changes and to comply properly.