Monday, December 8, 2014

Federal Nutrition Labeling - Exemption from Preemption?

YES!  I know that the FDA released the final rule for the national restaurant menu and vending machine nutrition (i.e., calorie) labeling law.  I haven't blogged about it yet because I was a little busy and I was trying to find out more, if I could, about the preemption piece.  To be clear, the final rule does a lot of what public health advocates, such as myself, hoped it would do and importantly, it includes movie theaters and prepared foods at grocery and convenience stores. Many reporters and bloggers have been talking about the final rule, and I hope that my post offers a little more than the usual fare (pun intended).

The FDA has a good Q and A page where you can learn more about which places will have calorie info available for you.  Click here to see and search the Q and A.  I went to the website myself to see if I could find out about bowling alleys, which I consider a caloric cesspool; and I found this beautiful paragraph

Establishments such as restaurants that are quick service and/or sit-down, food take-out facilities, pizza delivery establishments, food facilities in entertainment venues (e.g., movie theaters, bowling alleys), cafeterias, coffee shops, superstores, grocery and convenience stores, are covered if they meet the criteria listed above. 
Now there are two important qualifiers to the rule and as I've learned from some friends in King Co Washington and Philadelphia PA; its not as simple as it first seems.  I also spoke - through email - to a legal counsel at Perkins Coie LLP in Colorado.

1) The rules only apply to businesses with 20 or more establishments (re the 'criteria listed above' comment in the FDA paragraph I quoted). So YES to McDonalds and AppleBees and no to that quaint family owned bistro by your house. Yes to the AMF bowling alley with more than 300 lanes in the USA, no to the vending company with 10 machines. [I cannot wait to see the menu boards at bowling alleys (maybe my sister will send me a picture!).  I suddenly feel compelled to research how calorie laws affect the eating habits of bowlers!]

2) As the NRA hoped, the final rule does preempt the 15 or so existing state and local menu labeling laws (there are no vending laws to preempt). On the face of it, preemption means that no state or local law can be different from the national law. The national law says the menu boards, food tags and print menus must list total calories for each item - next to the item and in font the same size as the font listing the price; establishments also have to provide a statement regarding the standard 2000 calories a day contextual statement, and provide additional nutritional information in print, upon request. (Frequent readers of my blog know I think the contextual statement should say many people need closer to 1500/1800 calories a day, but it doesn't).

These 2 things (businesses included and preemption) play into each other in a way you might not expect, and in a way I didn't really see until someone pointed it out to me.  First, it is believed that a restaurant under the jurisdiction of the federal law, like AppleBees, cannot be made to display anything more than calorie content. Two local laws that I am aware of, one in King Co Washington and the other in Philadelphia PA, mandate that restaurants of certain size, also display fat grams and sodium mg on their print menus. It is possible that the federal law has a floor preemption instead of a ceiling.  IN other words, the law could mean that restaurants have to have calorie info but state and local laws could require more.  Most people (including two lawyers) have assured me that the preemption is a ceiling and states/localities can't require more than calorie disclosure. States and localities who want to force restaurants, by law, to disclose other nutrient information can petition the FDA for an exemption from preemption (great phrase!).  Stay tuned for more on King Co and Philadelphia's laws.  I will say that Philadelphia has a strong health related case for forcing the disclosure of sodium, and they know it.

But here is the clever part(and I am not sure who bested who on this one, the FDA or the National Restaurant Association).  States and localities can require establishments that are not under the FDA rule (i.e., local, small chains) to comply with a more involved law - and establishments that are not under the FDA's jurisdiction can OPT IN to the FDA rule.  Restaurants (or vending companies for that matter) that operate less than 20 establishments can make themselves fall under the FDA law.  If they opt in, then they cannot be targeted by state and local law.  SO, the new rule actually encourages restaurants to get on board because it can protect them from having to disclose, on their menu and menu board, more information. That sort of thing was exactly what the Restaurant Association was trying to shield their members from - having to comply with a patchwork of laws.

*** BTW making a company tell its customers what is in the products it sells is NOT an infringement on liberty!  Watch out for that kind of fear mongering spin - consumers have always had a right to know the contents of their purchases.

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