Putting Your Best Foot Forward

JohnNewThere was a time in the convenience store industry when being a great marketer was enough to have a successful business. Unfortunately, being a successful convenience store retailer these days means that not only do you have to outperform your competition, but you must also satisfy federal regulators.

The convenience store industry is used to the government poking its nose in the fuel business. It’s been that way for decades. But the Fed has moved well beyond fuel to tobacco and now foodservice—the industry’s two biggest in-store profit centers.

Regulation of tobacco is somewhat understandable, but federal regulation of foodservice seems to be a little bit over the top, especially when local health departments have been doing an admirable job overseeing restaurant safety for years.

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the U.S. are safe, and they intend to do so.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) requires most foods to bear nutrition labeling and requires food labels that highlight nutrient content claims and certain health messages to comply with specific requirements. Although final regulations have been established, regulations are frequently changed. It is the responsibility of foodservice providers to remain current with the legal requirements for food labeling. Failure to do so can result in anything from fines to your stores being shut down.

The act imposes labeling and disclosure requirements upon any “restaurant or similar retail food establishment that is part of a chain” with more than 20 locations, doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items. This puts many convenience store chains in the line of fire.

Nonstandard restaurant offerings not normally listed on the menu, such as condiments, daily specials or custom orders, would not need to have nutrition information listed.  Where a condiment is a standard part of the food item, its nutritional information would need to be included in the total information disclosed for that item, such as the coffee bar.

Staying Compliant
On the menu itself, the food offering must first state at the bottom of each page that the nutritional information is based on a 2,000-calorie diet.  Each menu item must disclose the number of calories.  Furthermore, foodservice operators must make separately available more extensive written nutrition information for each menu item, including total calories from all sources, total calories from total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars and protein contained in each serving size or other unit of measure.

If you thought training clerks how to properly portion a sandwich was difficult, wait until they have to calculate calories derived from fat in a 12-inch sub, both with and without cheese.

While this isn’t top-of-mind to convenience store retailers today, this issue is not going away and it promises to become much more complex as the industry delves deeper into the foodservice business.

As Convenience Store Decisions has been reporting for the past several years, the industry’s future success is closely tied to how well it can execute foodservice, and it’s been doing a stellar job growing food sales. For the past decade, convenience stores have consistently posted yearly sales gains in foodservice.

Retailers are to be commended for the work they have done cultivating the demand for fresh foods by enhancing their focus on quality, consistency, freshness and value. FDA regulations threaten to halt that momentum and shift the focus away from food and great service. But you can’t let that happen; the stakes are much too high. It’s up to you to stay focused and overcome this latest round of federal intrusion by understanding the laws and exceeding the expectations of federal regulators. While the industry is recognized for providing great service, it is also remarkably adept at overcoming challenges. Be prepared to hurdle this next big obstacle.

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