Calorie Labeling Feasible for Supermarkets' Prepared Foods, CSPI Finds

Available Nutrition Info, Dietitians on Staff Indicate Compliance Should be Easy


Supermarkets should easily be able to comply with soon-to-be finalized regulations to require the disclosure of calories for restaurant-style prepared foods, according to a new analysis of industry practices by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The nonprofit watchdog group surveyed the top 50 food retailers and found that of those that sell prepared foods (36 chains) more than 80 percent of them already possess nutrition information for some of those foods. Nearly 80 percent of the retailers also employ registered dietitians, either at the corporate level or in individual stores. In other words, supermarkets are already well-equipped to comply with the calorie labeling provisions included in the 2010 health care reform law. Though supermarkets and convenience stores would be covered under the regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration in April of 2011, the supermarket and convenience-store industries have been lobbying aggressively not to be covered.

"If chain restaurants have to disclose calories, it would only be fair that supermarkets and convenience stores that sell fast food or other prepared meals should disclose calories as well," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "In fact, that's exactly what Congress intended. Besides, supermarkets are acting more and more like restaurants, by offering buffets, salad bars, delis, and seating at tables."

Included in CSPI's sample of food retailers was the convenience-store giant 7-Eleven. That chain, which sells hot pizza slices, chicken tenders, nachos, burritos, and other foods, also has nutrition information for most of those items. Though it makes much of that information available online, it's just not easy to find in stores.

Providing calorie labeling at restaurants, supermarkets, and convenience stores is important, says CSPI, because Americans get a third of their calories from outside of the home. Several studies show that calorie labeling exerts a gentle downward pressure on the number of calories consumers end up ordering and that restaurants end up serving. At Starbucks, in what was the biggest and best study conducted to date, menu labeling had little impact on beverage calories ordered, but reduced the calories in food purchases by 14 percent. Plus, calorie labeling encourages food service establishments to reformulate meals with fewer calories.

CSPI's analysis also reveals how similar many supermarkets are to restaurants. Most supermarkets have bakeries; so do many restaurants, such as Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain. Similarly, many restaurants and supermarkets have buffets and salad bars.

"Why should consumers at Golden Corral's buffet have nutrition information, but diners at Whole Foods' supermarket buffet have none?" asked Wootan.

According to a national survey commissioned by CSPI last June, 81 percent of Americans favor having supermarkets provide calorie information for their prepared, restaurant-type foods, such as rotisserie chicken, sandwiches, and soups, and 77 percent want calorie labeling for the prepared foods available at convenience stores. "People not only want nutrition information, they need it," said Wootan. "Consumers, and even nutrition professionals, are unable to accurately estimate the calorie content of popular restaurant-type foods."

In letters to the top 36 food retailers that sell prepared foods, CSPI is urging the chains to support the FDA's proposal.

Final rules for calorie labeling are expected from the FDA later this year. CSPI also has urged the FDA not to exempt movie theaters or alcoholic beverages from calorie labeling requirements or to let vending machine operators provide calorie labeling on posters next to the machines that few people would notice. CSPI is also anticipating the release of long-overdue food safety regulations from the agency, which has missed several deadlines required by the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act.

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