Navigating regulations: Menu labeling is mostly beneficial

Illustration by Sam Falconer

When it comes to menu labeling obligations, several noncommercial foodservice operations are emboldened by the requirements, proclaiming, “Bring it on.” That’s because more rigid local, state or federal menu labeling decrees shine a bright spotlight on their programs’ reputability through greater transparency, offering a competitive advantage.

Even if there were no regulations with which to comply, “we’d be working towards providing as much detail regarding our food as possible out of sheer demand from our residents,” says Eric Eisenberg, director of dining services at Medford, Ore., senior living community Rogue Valley Manor. “Everyone, including seniors, really wants to know what’s in their food, and like a college campus—and actually even more so—we have a captive client based in our dining venues. They eat with us every day and want to know what we’re feeding them, especially the impact it could have on their health and longevity.”

Menu labeling became a federal obligation for chain restaurants and retail spots in May 2018, requiring units of brands with at least 20 branches to post calorie counts on menus, digital and written menu boards, individual menu identifiers and web-based or printed special event menus.

The Food and Drug Administration pegs the costs of compliance across all industries selling ready-to-eat food—which includes c-stores and supermarkets as well as restaurants—at $17 billion over the next 20 years.

“Everyone, including seniors, really wants to know what’s in their food." —Eric Eisenberg

While menu labeling laws apply mainly to chain restaurants and retail facilities on campus, and don’t impact main dining halls, Cornell University’s dining halls match the retail standards because “we really want to be forward-thinking on how we identify menu items, clean ingredients and allergens,”  says Dustin Cutler, executive director of dining at the university.

With food that’s packaged, such as its York Street Market salads and sandwiches offered as grab-and-go options in retail eateries, Cornell’s team is “making sure that vendor labeling is up to our standards,” says Cutler, adding that calorie counts, sodium levels and similar nutrition information are embossed on items packaged for retail sale as required by federal guidelines. 

The university has also developed an enormous database of nutrition data it shares with students online via Cornell Dining’s NetNutrition site.

On one hand, menu labeling “without a doubt will have the greatest impact on our day-to-day operations,” says Cheri Tyger of AVI Foodsystems, which oversees foodservice at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. On the other hand, “the change is good because it allows our guests to understand exactly what they are eating,” she says. 

Echoing Tyger’s sentiments, Steve Mangan of Michigan Dining says that as a public institution “we’re expected to align with regulatory and legislative oversight, so we make it our mission to stay ahead of it—to be proactive. On menu labeling, we’ve been ahead of the curve on transparency for years—ahead of government rules and regs.”

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