Movie theaters fight to keep popcorn from food-labeling rule
Movie-theater chains are fighting a federal requirement to disclose that their popcorn contains up to 1,460 calories, or equal to almost...
WASHINGTON — Movie-theater chains are fighting a federal requirement to disclose that their popcorn contains up to 1,460 calories, or equal to almost three Big Macs.
Chain restaurants with at least 20 U.S. locations will have to post calorie contents of menu items under a provision in the health-care law.
Regulators will propose rules by March 23 and can include concession stands and groceries, according to guidance that came out last year.
"It's easy enough to blow your whole diet for a week from one snack at the movie theater," said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "Just because you happen to be watching a movie while you're eating doesn't mean you aren't eating out."
Movie theaters and groceries are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to avoid the proposed regulation. Theater chains led by Regal Entertainment Group make nearly one-third of their annual revenue from concessions.
Congress didn't mention theaters in the law and the idea of regulating them never came up at legislative hearings, said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade group.
"In the basic history of the bill there is no real intent to include movie theaters that we could discern," Corcoran said. His trade group is recommending the FDA exempt companies that get less than 35 percent of gross revenue from food sales.
Groceries also shouldn't be subject to the rule, said Erik Lieberman, regulatory counsel for the Food Marketing Institute, the trade group representing chains including Safeway Inc. "There's no indication that the Congress ever intended to regulate supermarkets," he said.
Movie-theater chains were supposed to be targeted by the mandate, said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who sponsored a food-labeling bill in the House that was incorporated into the health-care law. The rule "is meant to let people know what it is that they're consuming," she said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who sponsored a similar measure, aimed for a broad definition of retail-food operations that included movie theaters and groceries because people often buy prepared meals at the establishments, said spokeswoman Justine Sessions.
Only prepared food such as popcorn and hot dogs sold at concession stands may be subject to the labeling requirements because packaged food already has nutritional labels.
If concession stands are exempt, a customer of McDonald's would know that a Big Mac meal with a medium order of French fries and a medium Coca-Cola has 1,130 calories while a theatergoer at Regal Cinemas wouldn't know that a large popcorn with butter-flavored topping packs 330 more calories than the fast-food combo. A Big Mac alone has 540 calories.
Movie theaters offer fare similar to fast-food establishments and should be subject to the same rules, said Wootan.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed popcorn sold by Regal Entertainment, Cinemark and AMC Entertainment in 2009 and found it contained from 370 calories to 1,460 calories depending on the serving size and whether butter-flavored toppings were added. A "moderately active" man 26 to 45 years old should consume 2,600 calories in a day, according to guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Food sales accounted for 26 percent of Regal Entertainment's $2.81 billion in revenue last year; 30 percent of Cinemark's $2.14 billion in 2010 sales came from food and drinks, according to the companies' annual reports.
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