Menu Labeling Rules: Marketing Opportunity or Compliance Nightmare?

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Menu Labeling Rules: Marketing Opportunity or Compliance Nightmare?

By Howland Blackiston, King-Casey - 08/26/2015

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration gave grocers with foodservice operations some breathing room in July when it delayed compliance with new menu labeling requirements for one year until Dec. 1, 2016.  Those grocers now face a simple choice: (1) move aggressively adopt the new requirements and use the extended lead time to learn how they will impact their business, or (2) treat the regulations as bothersome compliance work and delay adoption until the last possible minute.

Based on our firm's work in this area, we heartily recommend the former choice.  The new regulations, which have been endorsed by the National Restaurant Association, offer grocers an opportunity to gain a leg up, particularly in the competitive market for Millennials, who are fast becoming the core of every retailer's customer base.

Specific Steps

Begin by checking to see that you are not making any of the four most common mistakes that King-Casey found its clients making:

  • 1. Not knowing which foods are covered by the new rules; there is no point in determining calories for foods that do not apply to FDA guidelines;
  • 2. Incorrectly formatting calories; knowing when to use a "slash" or a "range" is complicated, but necessary in order to be compliant;
  • 3. Not listing calories for all flavors/varieties; if your menu lists different varieties of a standard menu item, you must declare the categories separately for each one;
  • 4.  Inappropriate use of the terms "calories" or "cal;" both terms are accepted and interchangeable, but the way in which the term appears determines the type size of the word used.

Then consider going beyond the FDA requirements to list the facts that really matter to Millennials -- food content beyond calories, such as carbohydrates and source of origin. This plays directly to the Millennials need for both wellness and transparent communications. Burgerville has long recognized its Pacific Northwest suppliers of items like Tillamook Creamery cheese, Walla Walla sweet onions and cage free eggs. Doing so communicated its commitment to sustainability and local sourcing of food, while increasing market share. Similar strategies could help you as well.

Evaluate All Communications

Remember that the FDA requirements apply to all systems that deliver information to your customers: menuboards, printed menus, brochures, flyers, etc. For grocers, the menuboard is one of the most critical communication devices in those zones selling prepared foods. First make sure you aren't making any of the mistakes cited above. Then assess your menuboard from a customer navigation standpoint. Is it easy to navigate and comprehend? What improvements could be made to facilitate ordering?  Finally, use sales and cost-of-goods data to strategize where you place and how you prioritize menu items. And then test the menuboards to validate improvement strategies. 

Some Critical "Dont's"

We've given you a few positive actions above; here are two things not to do. Don't procrastinate. You must allow ample time to develop and test nutritional strategies, as well as to implement them across your system. Remember, all restaurant chains must meet the same compliance date, so, for example, menuboard fabricators will probably be deluged with orders at the same time. You don't want to be caught in that crunch.

Don't expect much help from the FDA in answering the questions that surely will arise. It's not really their fault -- they are understaffed and have not been able to set up anything approaching a world-class help-desk. Couple that with the fact that the regulations are long, detailed and cumbersome, lacking any visual examples to illustrate the "do's" and "dont's," and you have a recipe for delayed response. We have gotten answers for our clients, but responses from the FDA have not happened overnight.