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Menu Labeling: Are Supermarkets Next?

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Up until now, retail foodservice has been able to secure exemptions from many of the regulations and requirements that apply to the restaurant industry. That meant supermarket delis, coffee bar/bakeries and fresh meals programs didn’t have to worry about posting nutritional information, calories or ingredients for each and every item they sold (per unit sales).

dc_menu.jpgThat may change soon, according to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal, which got a hold of the Food and Drug Administration’s crystal ball, which apparently shows calorie-posting rules will soon come to supermarkets… as well as movie theaters, airports and other food-selling venues.

"We're not restaurants," The Journal quotes Erik Lieberman, regulatory counsel for the Food Marketing Institute, as saying. "The vast majority of supermarket consumers are not consuming the food they purchased at the store within the store."

And this pithy observation from a representative of the theater industry: "People don't go to movie theaters for the primary purpose of eating. Why aren't ballparks covered? You think the food served at ballparks is healthy?”

Movie theaters might feel reluctance, but is this such a burden for supermarkets? Haven’t we been moving in this direction anyway?

For the past two years, our coverage has traced the implementation of nutrition rating systems like Guiding Stars and NuVal; a number of retailers have taken aggressive steps to highlight potential allergens like nuts and gluten in their prepared foods. Many operate commissaries where everything comes from a standardized recipe, which in turn, makes it easy to point out healthful attributes (low-salt, diet-friendly, vegan, etc.), as well as list ingredients and at least a fair approximation of calorie content.

Some retailers in the story see this trend and expressed only mild reservations.

"Everybody's going to be a little bit better informed, and that's a good thing," Lou Sheetz, executive vice president of the Sheetz convenience store chain, told the Journal.

“Informed” is the key word here. As in this latest example, the industry is quickly learning that consumers are demanding that more information be sold with the products they’re seeking. Indeed, in many cases, it’s the information — not the marketing or the coupons or the promotions — that are moving volume. It’s how the health and wellness category survived the recession. My bet is that this rule, if implemented as portrayed in the Journal article, will result in better products and stronger sales of those products.

[Photo credit: Mr. T in DC]

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