What FDA’s Guidance Document For Menu Labeling Doesn’t Tell You

Finally!  FDA has released the long awaited guidance document.  It likely answers some of your questions (even if you didn’t like the answer!) but not others.

One thing is for sure: the guidance document doesn’t tell you what to do now. It doesn’t give you step-by-step instructions or a detailed game plan leading up to December 1, 2016.  So what do you do now?

There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to preparing for menu labeling because each organization has their own starting line.  Some have their recipes analyzed – others don’t.  Some have practice with menu labeling in other states – others don’t.  Some have started preparing – others have put it off.

While the journey will look different for each “covered establishment,” my experience would indicate there are 7 key items that should be on your to-do list as you march toward December 1, 2016.  I like to call it my “7-point readiness plan”.

I’ve recorded a short video (13 minutes and 14 seconds, to be exact!) that summarizes the 7 key steps that should be part of your readiness plan.  Whether you are well on your way to compliance – or haven’t started yet – I’m hopeful the information I’ve compiled helps you along your journey.  My goal is to make menu labeling manageable for businesses and meaningful for consumers.  (PS – Unfortunately, this  video will only be accessible for about week! ) http://www.cldnutrition.com


What I’ve Learned about Nutrient Analysis of Recipes

I entered into the restaurant industry over 4 years ago. Although it was nowhere in my job description (it never is!), I ended up building and maintaining a nutrient analysis program for the largest full-service restaurant company. I didn’t know much about recipe analysis at that time, but learning anything and everything I could quickly became a necessity.

Chances are, with menu labeling just around the corner you have found yourself in the same boat. While it would be impossible to share everything I know about recipe analysis and building an in-house nutrient analysis program in one short article, I am hopeful I can share a few things that may lessen your learning curve.

 1. Invest in the right resources.

The primary tool you’ll need to do in-house calculated nutrient analysis is a reputable software program. While I can appreciate the need to control the added costs of menu labeling, cutting corners when selecting a software program is not something I would recommend. Instead, carefully consider the capabilities you need and make the investment. Look for a program that is pre-populated with USDA data, allows you to import your own ingredient data when needed, is able to calculate moisture losses and targets (so you don’t have to do this work manually) and can produce the reports you need to demonstrate to FDA that you have a reasonable basis for the claim.

In the book Recipe Nutrient Analysis: Best practices for calculation and chemical analysis (www.culinarynutritionipublishing.com), we’ve created a list of 31 factors (cost, capabilities and compatibility) to consider when choosing a nutrient analysis software. Send me an email if you’d like me to share that list with you.

2.  Enlist the help of an expert.

I’m not sure if recipe nutrient analysis is more of a science or an art, but I do know one thing for sure: it is more complex than I could have imagined. If you think analyzing your recipes simply involves adding up the ingredients in the recipe, think again. Calculating the nutrients in a recipe involves using accurate nutrient information for exact amounts of specific ingredients and then adjusting for any preparation or cooking technique. It is far from an exercise of “plug and play” or simple addition. Trust me when I tell you it requires a specific knowledge base and skillset to do.

Ideally, your nutrient analysis calculations will be performed by a food or nutrition expert who has at least 2 years of experience performing recipe analysis. If you don’t have an expert on staff, contract the work to a consultant or organization that can provide the expertise you need. Fees range from $75 to $250 per recipe, so budget accordingly.   If you must assign this work to an existing employee who does not have experience in this area, consider finding an experienced recipe analyst who can teach and mentor your internal staff via an hourly contract or project fee. Consultants may also be willing to spot check or verify recipes for a reduced fee. If you are going to go to the trouble of putting calories on the menu, you should go to the trouble of ensuring they are as accurate as they can be – and that means enlisting the help of an expert.

3.  Make recipe analysis part of your culinary development process.

You’ll notice I used the term “nutrient analysis program” in the opening paragraph. That’s because analyzing your recipes is not is not a one-time event. Complying with the menu labeling regulation means analyzing your recipes and disclosing that information is now part of what you do. It cannot be an afterthought. Establish a cross-functional team to examine your culinary development process and embed the activity of recipe analysis into your timelines. Formally assign roles and responsibilities and revisit what you’ve established as you move forward so that you can build on what works and adjust where needed.

4.  Send fried foods to the lab.

While it is exponentially more expensive than calculated nutrient analysis, it is recommended that all fried items be analyzed using chemical analysis. Estimating moisture loss and fat absorption is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate accurately using a calculated approach (how much oil does your fried chicken absorb?). Lab fees range from $450 to $1000 per item. Request quotes from several accredited laboratories and try to negotiate their fee based on your volume. It can take anywhere from 10 – 21 days to receive the results from the lab, so you’ll need to come to an agreement with the lab on estimated turnaround time and build that into your timeline.

In addition to fried foods, it is best practice to send marinated ingredients, braised ingredients, seasoned and cooked proteins, house-made stocks, reduced sauces and pickled or fermented foods to the lab as well.

Listing Calories on Your Menu is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

August 15th – the date FDA indicated their guidance for menu labeling would be released – has come and gone and yet we are still empty handed. If you are like me, you are anxiously waiting for this document, hoping it provides some clarity and closure on a long list of questions. Can we report sides separately? Does every variety of wine need to have a separate calorie declaration even if we plan to use one USDA data point to substantiate the category? Do I have to use ranges for meals that come with a choice of side?

There is certainly a lot to sort through … but even with all of the ambiguity in the regulations, I would contend that figuring out how to list calories on your menu is actually the easy part. In fact, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. What lies underneath is where the real work resides. Are your servers prepared to answer questions from your guests? Do your managers know what to do if there is an enforcement inquiry from FDA? Who is accountable to keep your recipe analysis up-to-date and accurate?

We have been so focused on where and how to put calories on the menu, I worry that we’ve lost sight of the entire task at hand. After all, menu labeling is not a one-time event. It is now part of what you do.

As you wait for the guidance document to firm up your approach to listing calories on the menu, use your time wisely by thinking through all of the work that must happen to support this task. Check out this infographic that can help ensure you don’t just have calories on the menu by December 1, 2016 – but that you are truly READY for compliance.  http://www.cldnutrition.com


3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Delay Preparing for Menu Labeling

I heard it from multiple foodservice professionals just last week: “FDA delayed menu labeling so maybe we should just pick this up again next year.” GULP.

I get it – I do. In the foodservice business we are constantly challenged with competing priorities. When the opportunity arises to delay working on just one of them, it’s hard not to take it. If you have nutrition information ready for each of your menu items, you probably can. If you have experience with menu labeling in a state or municipality that already requires it, you probably can. But if you are starting from scratch I can give you dozens of reasons not to take your foot off the gas. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on three.

ONE:  Analyzing your recipes will take you longer than you think. Even if you have standardized recipes in play, they don’t necessarily contain all of the information you need for accurate nutrient analysis. Calculated nutrition analysis (using a software program and ingredient data) is generally based on weights – not measures. Scoops, spoodles and sprinkles will need to be translated into weights through weighing and measuring in the kitchen. For some products, pre- and post-cooked weights will be needed to determine a final yield for the analysis to be accurate. These activities are incremental work that can put a strain on your culinary team. Allowing them to plan ahead and stage this work across several months can help control the chaos and decrease the chance of error. And don’t forget, while you can use “standard” USDA data for certain commodity items – like lettuce, tomato and low-fat milk – you’ll need the nutrition data for the proprietary products you use. Because gathering this data from the manufacturer takes time (and you can’t do your analysis without it!), you won’t want to leave it to the last minute.

TIP: Even if you aren’t ready to begin analyzing recipes, consider having an expert evaluate your recipes now to identify 1) additional information, weights or measures that will need to be provided for an accurate analysis and 2) ingredient information that will need to be gathered. This will allow you to build and prioritize a to-do list that can be staged in an organized way in the months ahead, making recipe analysis less daunting when you want to cross that bridge.

TWO:  The door for formal guidance from FDA is just about to close. If you’ve been engaged in the regulation (all 350+ pages of it), you know there is a fair amount of ambiguity in the rule. FDA has been busy gathering questions from the food industry and we are hopeful the Guidance Document they are scheduled to publish (this summer, we’ve been told) will answer most of our burning questions. However, it may not address your questions. Even worse – you may find some of FDA’s answers are unworkable for your business.  Why is this important? The Guidance Document will be open for public comment before being finalized. This means you have one more opportunity to get formal, written answers that clarify what is needed to be compliant. If you haven’t tried to apply the regulations to your menus, menu boards or self-service foods, you likely don’t know what your questions are or – more importantly – what answers you want. This means you won’t be prepared to engage in this process – either directly with FDA or through your industry association. Having clear, written guidance should not be undervalued. Without it you may be forced to contend with a local regulator enforcing the rule based on their interpretation of unclear guidance. What other choice will they have?

THREE:  Use the gift of time to test your way through it. We test everything in the foodservice business – so why not this? Nobody can say with much certainly how menu labeling will change consumer behavior. However, we do know a shift in menu item preference has a ripple effect– with potential to impact margins, par pulls, inventory and more. While most operators can adjust on the fly (it is what you are built to do, after all!), testing in a few locations or a small market may help you project and plan for  the impact.   And remember, testing calories on the menu shouldn’t be limited to measuring consumer behavior. Use the opportunity to determine what needs to be done to prepare your operators, too. What questions did your customers ask? Are your servers prepared to answer them? Do any improvements need to be made to the staff training materials? Did your process for having “full nutrition information available upon request” work? Ironing out these small details before rolling out on a large scale could help to control the chaos.

December 1, 2016 will be here before you know it. Don’t drag your feet for too long.  Instead, use the gift of time to take a thoughtful, organized approach to compliance. www.cldnutrition.com