NEW HAVEN, CT -- With the FDA scheduled to issue federal nutrition labeling requirements for vending machines this month, National Automatic Merchandising Association senior vice-president of government affairs Ned Monroe and Connecticut Vending Association legislative director Eric Mueller met with the congresswoman who co-authored the law to underscore the industry's concerns and voice its recommendations. The FDA is required by the healthcare law to publish its proposed vending labeling regulations by March 23.
Monroe and Mueller reported that Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) was sympathetic to the burden the rules will place on the industry and receptive to their suggestions for guidelines that minimize the cost and labor for operators to comply. The meeting took place in Rep. DeLauro's office here on February 24.
NAMA has advocated on behalf of the industry since the calorie-disclosure law was passed early last year as part of healthcare reform legislation. Last fall, the association applauded Rep. DeLauro and the bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), for addressing the vending industry's concerns in a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. | SEE STORY
At the meeting, Monroe and Mueller explained the need for flexibility and legal protection within the rules to protect vendors from being penalized for inadvertent labeling errors. They demonstrated that the same item often finds its way into different slots in a machine, for a variety of reasons.
Rep. DeLauro said that, ideally, she would like to see caloric content displayed adjacent to each item. Mueller proposed posting a menu with the nutritional information for the 400 or 500 top-selling items next to the selection buttons, which operators would replace annually or semiannually. He explained that such a list would allow 98% to 99% compliance on all vended items, with the least amount of labor involved.
Acknowledging the estimate that the legislation could cost the vending industry 14 million man hours per year, or $40,000 per operator on average, DeLauro told the industry representative that the legislative intent was never to harm small vending businesses or job creation. She agreed to work with the industry and the FDA on compliance that does not require extensive labor.
Mueller told VT that he and Monroe also proposed front-of-package labeling as a solution, and said DeLauro was open to suggestions from the vending community on how that approach might be incorporated into the rules. "Any ideas can be forwarded to me, and I will send them to our Congresswoman," Mueller invited.
The CVA legislative director also explained to Rep. DeLauro that the extra task of nutrition labeling compliance would likely fall on route drivers. "These are the very folks responsible for our revenue in an already delicate industry," he said. "We stated that this is our most valuable job, and that the drivers are already doing everything they can within a day's work." He also pointed out that there would be no incremental income from the labeling effort, and that businesses are likely to suffer if the compliance becomes too cumbersome.
NAMA's Monroe asked DeLauro whether the language of the bill could be redrafted to include all vending machine operators, rather than limited to those with 20 or more machines, in exchange for flexibility and legal protection in the rules. The Congresswoman said that was not a viable option, as it took years for the bill to pass as currently written.
"One very positive note was that we did educate the Congresswoman on how the industry has made great strides in countering the obesity epidemic, and that there has been a shift in the items we carry and how we do business," said Mueller.
He pointed out that the legislation was originally intended for restaurants and that the National Restaurant Association supported menu labeling legislation to provide a nationwide standard rather than a "patchwork" of state or local menu labeling requirements. "During that process, other special interest groups included vending into the legislation," Mueller explained. "We must ensure that vending always has a seat at the table when any legislation dealing with our industry is debated. We must continue to be vigilant at every step of this process."