NORTH SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to work on new menu labeling regulations, but trying to apply them to convenience stores may be like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.
Or, as Brad Call, chairman of NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, wrote in a commentary piece for Roll Call, like trying to fit into hand-me-down clothes.
"Anyone with older siblings or cousins remembers the joys of hand-me-down clothes. They were a common-sense approach for mom, of course. But somehow those outfits never fit right, felt right or looked right -- they sagged here and bunched up there, and certainly weren't your favorite color or style," Call wrote. "Why? Because they were really meant for someone else -- and not for you."
Call is also vice president of adventure culture at Maverik Inc., a North Salt Lake City-based retailer with 250-plus convenience store locations across 10 western states.
According to Call, the FDA is taking a similar approach with the new restaurant menu labeling regulations required by the Affordable Care Act. He wrote that the agency's proposed rules are "a reasonable, though hardly perfect, fit for the big chain restaurants." These restaurants offer standardized menus at all locations and Congress' intent was to make sure those menus provide clear, understandable nutrition information, he explained.
"But the menu labeling regulations don't make sense at all for convenience stores, grocery stores, delivery operations and other approaches to foodservice," Call argued.
Under the FDA rules, a restaurant or similar retail food establishment is defined as any business that devotes more than half of its floor space to consumer food sales and also offers restaurant-type items. Under those terms, a convenience store would be defined as a restaurant even if 95 percent of its space is devoted to grocery items and it sells only one or two prepared items at the counter. The same rules apply to delivery-only operations, Call added.
"The simple fact is that these small businesses are different from the big, cookie-cutter fast-food chains -- and from each other. Many of them are owned and operated by small businessmen and women who are covered under the rules because they happen to operate as a franchisee of a larger corporation," he wrote. "Others are covered because they're parts of cooperatives for purchasing and marketing. But they are owned and operated independently and have wildly varying food offerings, modes of service and suppliers. These traits make it exceedingly difficult to comply with the FDA's proposed rules."
Even so, Call pointed out, the regulations would require these local establishments to display the same types of menu boards disclosing calories as fast-food chains. Foods on display -- like in most convenience stores -- would have to be individually labeled on signs next to the food.
"Hand-me-down clothes, though not optimal, are at least cheaper, prevent waste and provide those who wear them the benefit of being warmly (if not stylishly) dressed. But the 'hand-me-down' FDA labeling regulations? Just the opposite," he stated.
Call also pointed out that the regulations would be "outrageously expensive" for the c-store industry's small businesses. NACS estimates an average cost of approximately $20,000 per year per store to comply with the additional cost of compliance.
In addition to cost, the Office of Management and Budget found that the FDA's proposed rules would take more than 14 million hours to comply with, according to Call.
"If the rules would make sure consumers were better informed and eating healthier, at least that would help. Unfortunately, they won't," he concluded.