WASHINGTON — Chain restaurants, convenience stores, concession stands and vending machines would soon have to display calorie information for the food products they sell, under rules proposed Friday by the Food and Drug Administration.
"We do see this as an important step in providing consumers with information they can use in choosing healthy diets and fighting obesity," said Michael Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for foods. He noted that on average Americans get 33 percent of their daily calories from food purchased outside the home.
The rules, required by Congress as a little-noticed provision of the health care overhaul law passed last year, are subject to a public comment period before they are finalized and implemented in 2012, Taylor said.
A notable exemption to the proposed rules are movie theaters, which earn up to a third of their income from sales of popcorn and other foods at concession stands. Movie theaters have been lobbying the FDA in recent months, arguing that they should not be subject to the law because people come to theaters to see movies and not to eat meals.
Under the regulations, any restaurant with 20 or more locations offering standard fare — including table service, fast food, bakeries and coffee shops — would have to disclose calories on menus or menu boards, including drive-through kiosks. Other nutritional information, such as sodium and fats, would have to be available upon request.
In addition to movie theaters, the regulations would exempt bowling alleys, airplanes and other places where less than half the floor space is devoted to food sales. But the rules would apply to a kiosk of a chain housed inside another business — a Starbucks inside a bookstore, for example.
The idea behind the law is to increase information available to consumers before they make a purchase. At supermarkets, nearly all foods have carried a "Nutrition Facts" label since 1990, allowing shoppers to assess calories, sodium, fat and other ingredients.
Some restaurant chains already voluntarily provide calorie counts or other nutritional information. The federal law will set a national standard.
Some are skeptical that calorie information will cause consumers to make different choices.
"I think it will have an initial impact but not a lasting impact," said Bonnie Riggs, an analyst with the NPD Group, a leading market research company that tracks consumer use of food service outlets.