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Three years after signing of PPACA, restaurant chains await guidance on labeling

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Deli worker Alaina Consagra prepares a child’s meal with gluten-free bread at Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches in Lemoyne, Cumberland County. The Lancaster-based chain expects to be affected by a health care reform requirement that restaurant chains provide nutrition information on their menus, but three years in, no federal implementation date is in sight. Photo/Amy Spangler
Deli worker Alaina Consagra prepares a child’s meal with gluten-free bread at Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches in Lemoyne, Cumberland County. The Lancaster-based chain expects to be affected by a health care reform requirement that restaurant chains provide nutrition information on their menus, but three years in, no federal implementation date is in sight. Photo/Amy Spangler

When retail food establishment chains will have to put nutrition information on their menus is still anyone's guess.

The requirement is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but nearly three years after the law was signed, implementation of that provision hasn't made much progress.

"We sure would like to know when all of this is going to be," said Greg Drake, senior manager of purchasing and facilities for Isaac's Restaurant and Deli. The Lancaster-based chain has 19 locations, Drake said, just one short of triggering the requirement, and it plans to grow.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published draft guidance and proposed rules and accepted comments, according to the FDA website. Officials reported that many comments received centered on the issue of what counts as a retail food establishment under the law, which under some of the multiple options presented could include some grocery and convenience stores. The requirement also applies to vending machine operators with 20 or more locations.

The final rules were supposed to be published in June 2012 and, to date, have not been. Even after they are published, implementing them will take some time.

"It would be hard at this point to think it would be ready for Jan. 1, 2014," Drake said.

The requirement has four key parts, and Isaac's does not object to two of them. Making nutritional information available is something Isaac's has done for years, even though it is not currently required, and posting a prominent notice that the brochure is available is easy to do.

However, Drake said, putting the information on the menu itself and posting a statement that puts it in the context of total daily caloric intake is going to take a lot of room and occasion additional expense for the company, which prints new menus just once a year.

"We're constantly negotiating for better pricing, and sometimes that means changing products," Drake said. If changing the ham in a sandwich requires reprinting the menu early to update the nutritional information, it's going to be cumbersome.

"We want our customers to have very detailed information about calories and allergens and everything we can provide them, but we believe the main menu isn't the best place to provide that," he said.

Drake added that another aspect of the requirement won't really affect Isaac's but still seems problematic: Putting nutritional information on places such as salad bars and buffets.

"There's not much elbow room to begin with," he said.

The company isn't expecting the FDA to rescind the requirements, Drake said, but it does hope they will be tweaked for easier compliance. Even details such as the size of the font used to display nutrition can make a big difference.

The National Restaurant Association has been an advocate for a uniform standard so customers have access to consistent nutrition information nationwide, according to Dan Roehl, its senior director of government relations,

However, Roehl said, the association "is working to ensure restaurants have flexibility in implementing the new standard, including how the information is displayed on a menu or menu board, and the period of time in which operators must comply."

The FDA estimates that the requirement will affect more than 278,000 establishments in about 1,600 chains. Initial costs are estimated to be $1,100 per covered establishment, with an estimated annual cost of between $76 million and $82 million nationwide.

PPACA’s other effect

There has been much hubbub nationally about the restaurant industry and how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act employer mandate could cause workforce restructuring and price increases.

The law defines full-time employment at 30 hours per week and requires companies with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees to provide health insurance meeting certain standards or pay a penalty.

Isaac’s Restaurant and Deli doesn’t expect to do any restructuring, according to Greg Drake, senior manager of purchasing and facilities. The core of Isaac’s business is business professionals who come for lunch, Drake said, “and they need to be served with waitstaff that is professional.”

So, Drake said, Isaac’s offers health insurance to anyone who works 25 hours or more a week, as a strategic move to attract and keep the kind of employees it needs. Its health and wellness committee works hard to educate Isaac’s employees, and the company hasn’t had an increase in premiums for nearly six years.

That will change this June when the company’s policy renews, Drake said, as Isaac’s insurer has told the company that PPACA will push its premiums up 2 percent this year, and likely another 2 percent next year.

Drake doesn’t know yet the full effect that PPACA will have on Isaac’s, but he said the company isn’t counting on having to increase its prices.

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer covers Lancaster County, nonprofits, education and health care. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at heathers@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @StaufferCPBJ.

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