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WASHINGTON, D.C. ─ According to a market researcher, the new federal law that requires calorie information to be listed on restaurant chain menus has consumers buying less.
The federal menu labeling law was passed with the new Health Care Bill last March 23. The law, which takes effect in the latter half of 2012, requires that restaurant chains with 20 or more units display calories for standard menu items, as well as calories for each serving of food at a salad bar or buffet line. The national menu labeling law will preempt a number of state and local menu labeling laws already in effect in locations such as New York City, California and Philadelphia.
Faced with a barrage of menu label laws from municipalities and states, chains welcomed the national standard. The National Restaurant Association, a trade group for restaurateurs, stated the benefits of the federal menu labeling law: "The federal law preempted state or local menu-labeling requirements that are not identical to the federal menu-labeling requirement." The association also went on to say that the law would help protect restaurants from frivolous litigation in that it included a "reasonable basis" standard for operators to use in developing nutrient-content data for standard menu items. "The standard helps protect restaurants from unreasonable litigation because it recognizes the variability that occurs in the preparation and service of food in restaurants," declared the NRA on its web site.
The International Franchise Association, a trade group that largely represents franchisors, also praised the FDA for the single standard. "The IFA supports consistent implementation of nutrition menu labeling information for the public," it stated back in January. The vast majority of single unit franchise owners may not be concerned with a proliferation of city and state menu laws, particularly if they are in an area free of such laws. But regional and national franchisors consider the prospects of having differing menu labeling standards a major headache.
Misty Chally, deputy executive director for the Coalition of Franchisee Associations, agrees.
Chally emphasizes that when it comes to multi-unit store owners, different menu standards can be expensive. Representing franchisees from some of the country's largest chains, Chally declares, "While the CFA doesn't solely represent food service franchisees, we support a uniform menu labeling standard so that franchisees will not have to bear the burden of paying for different menus and menu boards based on the city, county or state where their business is located."
Consumers See Listed Calories, Eat Less
To help restaurant operators in gauging consumers' response to calorie postings on menus, the NPD Group conducted a survey among adults ages 18 and older. They were asked to indicate items that they would order from two versions of a typical fast food hamburger restaurant menu. Their first exposure was to a typical menu board without calorie information. Their second exposure was to the same menu board, but with calorie counts shown alongside the price of each item. The before and after ordering patterns were then compared.
After viewing the menu with the calories posted, consumers ordered items that amounted to fewer calories, but the difference in calories was relatively small. The average number of calories ordered when calories were posted was 901, compared to 1,021 when calories were not posted. The study by market researcher NPD also found that consumers ordered about the same number of items when calories were posted. They ordered, on average, 3.3 items when calories weren't posted, versus 3.2 when they were.
"Calories aren't the main priority for diners who are looking for healthy options when they eat out," says Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst and author of the report. "We found through our research that quality, as in fresh, natural, and nutritious, is the most important healthy eating attribute when they dine out."
Consumers exposed to calories on menus did buy fewer items that were already declining in terms of restaurant servings, such as french fries, carbonated soft drinks, one-third-pound hamburgers, shakes and smoothies, onion rings and some chicken sandwiches. On the other hand, the study found that the calorie postings increased orders for other food. For example, orders increased for smaller-sized hamburgers and cheeseburgers, diet carbonated soft drinks, salads without dressing, and grilled chicken wraps.
Menus with calories posted also affected how much consumers spent. Average checks for lunch and dinner declined slightly, from $6.40 when calories were absent to $6.20 when calories were disclosed, which Riggs explained could be the result of ordering a smaller portion size, such as French fries.
"Operators may want to plan for some initial shift in product mix when the new menus are presented to consumers," says Riggs. "Lower-calorie sides might be highlighted or promoted when the menu change is made, which could assist in keeping order sizes and check sizes up." Riggs suspects that the change to lighter eating may adjust back to the old norm in the long run. She assures the industry, "In the short term, we expect consumers may react to calorie labeling with some shift in foods and beverages ordered, but expect that old behaviors will return in time."