Obamacare regulation pushing buttons in vending industry

2014-01-18T15:00:00Z Obamacare regulation pushing buttons in vending industryVanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

Peering through the glass of a vending machine could give people food for thought in the upcoming year or so, as government regulations will require calorie counts to be displayed.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations will be required to list calorie information for menu items. The act also requires vending machine operators who own 20 or more vending machines to disclose calorie content, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The full impact of the regulations depend on the final wording.

"We would hope that, in finalizing the recommendations, the FDA would take our perspective into serious consideration," said Roni Moore, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chicago-based National Automatic Merchandising Association, or NAMA. "We've been working very hard to communicate our concerns so that the regulations are not overly burdensome. The cost to comply, as the regulations stand now, would be simply a huge burden to the industry."

Some estimates show the cost will be $42,000 per year for implementation and compliance costs for each of the about 10,000 small business owners affected, Moore said.

The association's main request of the FDA is for flexibility, because the vending industry includes many types of machines in a variety of settings.

They are in offices, factories, schools, hospitals and more. Some are indoors, and some are outdoors, she said.

There is no time line for the regulations to be announced, but some in the industry think they may be released in February, Moore said.

Lee Hartnett, co-owner and vice president of Commercial Food Systems based in Bridgeview, Ill., said he anticipates regulations will require calorie counts to be printed on the front of item packaging.

"I think that's the way it's going to have to go," he said. "For us to go any other way would really be impossible to do."

The company's Northwest Indiana coverage area stretches just east of Chesterton and south to Crown Point. Posting a list with the caloric content for every candy bar and snack in every machine is not realistic. They would be too easily vandalized and outdated, he said.

Some manufacturers have started printing calories on packaging already, but there is no uniformity, especially with visibility.

"The problem is, there's not guidelines for the fonts," he said.

Once all the regulations are in place, calorie information will need to be displayed on about 5 million vending machines, in many companies and in restaurants with more than 20 locations. The FDA estimated it will cost almost $26 million for the first year and $24 million a year after that. Businesses will have a year to comply, although the vending machine industry has asked for a two-year deadline.

The industry agrees with the purpose of the regulations and, in 2005, implemented the Fit Pick program that labels "better for you" choices in vending machines, Moore said.

"We agree that consumers need information to make the right snack and beverage choice for them," she said.

Hartnett, who started as a driver for the company in the 1970s, is not confident that posting calorie contents will help people make healthier choices.

Machines stocked with healthy items are filled maybe once a week, compared to traditional snack machines that need to be filled several times a week, he said.

"Unfortunately, people want to talk about wanting healthy products, but they don't buy the healthy ones," Hartnett said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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