WASHINGTON -- A nutritional-content labeling requirement for vending machines has made its way into the expanded healthcare reform bill, now being considered by the House of Representatives. The measure is the final version of the healthcare bill that was amended by three House committees over the summer.
The labeling mandate echoes one included in a proposal to revise the federal law that regulates packaged food labeling. That measure was introduced this spring by Sen. Thomas Harkin (D-IA) in the Senate as S 1048, and by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in the House as HR 2426.
The stated purpose of that measure was to extend the food-labeling requirements of the 1990 law "to enable customers to make informed choices about the nutritional content of standard menu items in large chain restaurants" -- those with 20 or more outlets. This specifically included operators running 20 or more vending machines.
On Oct. 29, House Democratic leaders unveiled the "Affordable Health Care for America Act" (HR 3962), which includes that requirement. That measure's Section 2572 calls for "Nutrition labeling of standard menu items at chain restaurants and of articles of food sold from vending machines."
Specifically, "In the case of an article of food sold from a vending machine that (I) does not permit a prospective purchaser to examine the Nutrition Facts Panel before purchasing the article or does not otherwise provide visible nutrition information at the point of purchase; and (II) is operated by a person who is engaged in the business of owning or operating 20 or more vending machines, the vending machine operator shall provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button that includes a clear and conspicuous statement disclosing the number of calories contained in the article."
The National Automatic Merchandising Association had closely monitored the earlier nutritional labeling proposed by the Senate. The Menu Education & Labeling Act (MEAL) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Harkin, and the Labeling Education & Nutrition Act (LEAN) is sponsored by Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
According to NAMA, the requirements set by the language in those measures cannot be satisfied by posting nutritional information on a website, but the association is working to modify the language to permit operators to do so.
If the law is enacted as presently written, calories must be publicly disclosed at the point of sale. The next steps will be the consideration of the compromise measure in Senate and House committees, and then by the full Senate and House of Representatives.
NAMA president and chief executive Rich Geerdes and senior vice-president and chief operating officer Dan Mathews spent a week in the nation's capital this summer, meeting with key Congressional offices to address the impact the legislation would have on the vending industry.
The association reported that the language in the healthcare reform bill is identical to the language that was passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. If passed into law, NAMA explained, the rules on how to comply with calorie disclosure will be drafted by the Secretary of HHS over the next year or two. NAMA senior vice-president of government affairs Ned Monroe told VT that, as a result of the association's efforts, the vending industry might receive some support on technical issues, such as how the disclosure will take place, and legal protection for inadvertent mislabeling.
The complete text of the proposal, which is 1,900 pages in length, is available online at http://docs.house.gov/rules/health/111_ahcaa.pdf, maintained by the House Committee on Energy & Commerce.
NAMA's Monroe pointed out that no plan to tax sugar sweetened beverages appears in either the House or Senate versions of the healthcare reform bills. "However, we remain concerned that an amendment may be offered on the floor of the Senate to impose a new federal soft drink tax," he advised members. "If you would like to email your Senators to oppose any sugar sweetened beverage tax, you can use NAMA's new government affairs website, namavoice.com."
Monroe also explained that members could keep track of legislative news with the newsletter posted at NAMA Government Affairs Legislative News on the Web.
Separately, Sen. Harkin, who is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, is working to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate all food sold at all educational facilities -- including those sold through vending machines -- at all times of the day. USDA currently oversees school lunches and prohibits the sale of foods with minimal nutritional value, such as soft drinks in the lunchroom. It does not control food sold in vending machines, a la carte lines or school stores.