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House passes rollback of Obama-era menu labeling rules

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The House passed a bipartisan bill Tuesday that, if passed by the Senate, would roll back regulations requiring how restaurants and other food establishments need to list calorie counts and other nutrition details on menus and websites.

Critics say the bill would let restaurants and supermarkets mislead consumers.

Approval of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which would limit requirements mandated under Obamacare, is a step towards victory for restaurants that say the existing rules create an expensive and "unrealistic" burden on business owners.

A letter to Congress signed by a coalition of more than 150 food service industry organizations expressed support for the bill and concern over the current FDA guidance set to be enforced starting in May.

Those FDA regulations say food retailers must add calorie counts to in-store menus, even for establishments where most business is done online or over the phone such as a pizza shop. Physical menus with a variety of combinations can list a range of calories, but must account for all available ingredients.

This poses a challenge for some businesses depending on the nature of their products and business, such as pizza and sandwich shops where possible combinations can reach into the millions and most sales are conducted online or over the phone.

Opponents of the current rules say creating such a physical menu with calorie ranges that include all possible combinations is a waste of money and an arduous task. They prefer to list the calorie counts of just standard food items on their websites.

Supporters of the new bill include suppliers of local foods, who claim to lack the resources to conduct caloric analysis on items like fresh produce.

"The FDA’s one-size-fits-all approach places additional burdens on the backs of our nation’s small business owners without giving them the flexibility they need to actually comply with the regulations," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.,who introduced the House bill.

At least 86 Republicans and Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.

Critics are primarily taking aim at the bill's accuracy requirements that are written in somewhat vague language.

Under the proposed law, calorie information would be considered reasonably accurate as long as any discrepancies are "including but not limited to variations in serving size, inadvertent human error in formulation or preparation of menu items, variations in ingredients, or other reasonable variations.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the bill an effort to "upend disclosure by letting restaurants invent misleading serving sizes, hide calories in hard-to-find places inside supermarkets and convenience stores, and remove calories from inside pizza chains," according to Margo Wooten, Vice President for Nutrition.

While supporters of the bill say the current FDA rules leave well-intentioned food service providers vulnerable to penalties, CSPI argues that the FDA intends to focus on "technical assistance and education rather than enforcement in the beginning of implementation." The critics of the bill added that the FDA does not have the funds for enforcement.

The Senate, where a similar bill sits in committee, has not yet scheduled a vote.

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