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Will labeling calorie counts on menus bring down America’s obesity rates?

Food chains, including restaurants, cafes and even some vending machines, will soon be required to list calorie counts clearly on their menus. Margaret Hamburg of the FDA, the group responsible for the new law, speaks with Judy Woodruff on the organization’s goal to reduce obesity and the restaurant industry’s responses.

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    Let's turn to a different story on the domestic front today, one that could affect many Americans and their dietary habits.

    The Food and Drug Administration announced new rules that require chain restaurants to list calorie counts clearly and conspicuously on their menus and their displays. They will apply to — this will apply to chains that have 20 locations or more. But that's not all. The requirements will also apply at coffee shops, bakeries, pizza places, movie theaters, vending machines, and prepared foods at grocery stores. And if alcohol's on the menu, the calories per drink will be listed too.

    Americans get as much as a third of their calories from eating out. But several industry groups say they are disappointed with the rules and they contend they will affect what they offer and how much it costs.

    I spoke earlier today with FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

    Dr. Margaret Hamburg, welcome.

    This is a pretty sweeping set of requirements. It affects just about all the prepared food people buy. What was your goal here?

    MARGARET HAMBURG, Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration: Well, as you know, Congress passed a law in 2010 asking the FDA to put in place new requirements for menu and vending machine labeling.

    Obviously, this reflects the fact that overweight and obesity is a huge problem in this country affecting millions and millions of people, and that consumers have a very big interest in knowing more about the food that they eat and the food that they feed their families.

    So we're trying to provide uniform, consistent information about calories in particular, but access to other nutritional information as well for consumers when they eat outside the home.


    But isn't the research on this, on whether providing this kind of information actually leads to cutting calories, isn't that research mixed?


    Well, the research is mixed. We need to learn more about it.

    Some studies have indicated that there are clear benefits, both to individuals and also that the companies, the restaurants involved may change their menus to offer more low-calorie food choices. But this is about giving people choices and information that we know consumers like to have.

    Right now, consumers do get access to clear, quality nutritional information on the packaged foods that they buy, thanks to the FDA nutrition facts panel that is present on the backs of — or on all food containers, packaged food.

    But when you go to a restaurant or similar food business, you can't get that kind of information. And so what we're doing, really, is filling a gap. And I think it matters because about — when you look at where Americans are eating, Americans eat about a third of their calories outside of the home, and often purchasing foods outside of the home have no idea whom calories are in that food or other important nutritional aspects of the food that they're eating.


    We know the National Restaurant Association is now supportive, but we know pizza chains and others have been seriously opposed to this. Why limit it to chains of 20 stores or 20 — 20 restaurants or more?


    Well, that was explicit in the law. So we're building on the legislation that Congress gave us.

    But in defining restaurants and restaurant-like establishments, we spent a lot of time listening to stakeholders and looking at the different ways that foods are prepared and sold in this country and, you know, really tried to put forward rules that would make a difference in terms of giving consumers information that they want and need, but would reflect the realities of the marketplace.


    We have — we have seen today the National Grocers Association saying they're disappointed. Quote — they say this imposes such a large and costly regulatory burden.

    And we know you're saying that if the food is prepared for one individual, it's to be labeled, but if it's for more than one, it doesn't have to be. Isn't there going to be a good bit of confusion for people?


    Well, we're going to work closely with industry, and certainly the grocery stores are going to be one important area of focus.

    There are a lot of questions right now. I think as people dig down into the rules, number one, the grocery stores will recognize that fewer of the products they're concerned about actually will fall under our labeling requirement. It's really the food that's for immediate consumption, the salad bars, the hot food bars and the deli sandwiches that are prepared and are presented to consumers in much the same way that they would be in certain fast food restaurants.

    You know, it's intended for immediate consumption or soon after you leave the premises. And there are menu boards and the calories will just have to be added to those menu boards.


    So how soon does this take place?


    Well, for the menu labeling, there's a year for implementation. We actually extended our original plan in the proposed rule in order to accommodate the needs and concerns of food businesses.

    For vending machines, which are also subject to this rule, if it's part of a chain of 20 or more locations, for vending machines, it's actually two years to implement the law.


    Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, we thank you.


    Thank you.

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