Beer Snob: Affordable Care Act Edition

Beer Snob: Affordable Care Act Edition

I'm not overly informed when it comes to the current political climate so don't take anything in this blog as support or opposition to any political ideology. I'm not a republican. I'm not a democrat. I don't even vote for the President of the United States (it is an issue I have with the Electoral College; I do vote in local and state-wide elections; and it is probably something I'll address in a later blog). The purpose of this blog is to share one of the lesser publicized sections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), specifically Section 4205 - Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants.

Section 4205 of the ACA amends Section 403(q)(5(A) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to include the following:

...food that is a standard menu item that is offered for sale in a restaurant or similar retail food establishment that is part of a chain with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name (regardless of the type of ownership of the locations) and offering for sale substantially the same menu items, the restaurant shall disclose the information described in subclause (ii) and (iii)

What is in subclause (ii) and (iii)? I'm so glad you asked. These two subclauses include "a nutrient content disclosure adjacent to the name of the standard menu item so as to be clearly associated with the standard menu item, on the menu listing the item for sale, the number of calories contained in the standard menu item, as usually prepared for sale" and "in written form, available on the premises of the restaurant or similar retail establishment and to the consumer upon request, the nutrition information required." That is a lot of words used by politicians and lawyers to say some pretty basic stuff. Chain restaurants will be required to report the calorie count of regular items directly on the menu and the total nutritional information for regular menu items will have to be available upon request.

On the surface this seems like a great thing. I don't think anyone would deny that there is an obesity epidemic in the U.S. (I'm in fact part of that epidemic which is a major topic of this blog) and providing consumers with informed decisions when they are dining out is one small way to help battle the epidemic. I personally think the best way to fight overeating and eating poorly is to cook as much fresh food at home and eat out sparingly but I'm also a realist that understands dining out is a large part of the American culture. It is extremely helpful to know what is in the food you are eating, if for no other reason to show that just because you are getting a salad at McDonald's doesn't mean you are cutting calories. (Premium Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken - 510 calories, Southern Style Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich - 470 calories).

How does this affect the world of a beer snob and the craft beer market? The answer is pretty simple. Small and regional craft brewers typically desire to grow through increased distribution. One of the fastest ways to do that is to have your beer distributed to restaurant chains. This has typically been a win-win for the restaurant and the brewer. The restaurant gets business because they can advertise the service to the local community. The brewer gets business because they receive exposure in a highly trafficked restaurant.

Under this new law, the local and regional brewers will have to spend the money to calculate the nutritional facts for each beer that the brewer wishes to have in these chain restaurants. It doesn't matter that your local beer is only being served in your local Outback Steakhouse. Because Outback has more than 20 stores, the nutritional facts for your local beer (assuming it is going to be a regular item in that one store) will have to be published. According to Brewbound, a beer industry publication, this could cost the brewer as much as $1,000 per item to test the product and calculate the nutritional information. This may not be an issue for the major beer manufacturers or even large regional brewers but this could certainly but small, local brewers out of the business of selling to chain restaurants. This is a shame because having a local beer in a chain restaurant provides benefits to both businesses.

A delicious local brew served right in the brewery. Under this section of the ACA, you may not be able to purchase this at a chain restaurant in the near future.

A delicious local brew served right in the brewery. Under this section of the ACA, you may not be able to purchase this at a chain restaurant in the near future.

One very good example of how this benefits both the restaurant and the brewer is the consideration of the family vacation. Especially those families that may have younger kids, say ages 4-10 (I just picked those ages out of the air but you'll get it in a second). While on vacation the family wants to go out to eat. The parents are up to try a local place but are concerned because the kids only want to go to a place they recognize. "Hey look, Dad, it's Applebee's! Let's go there!" The Dad, just wanting to keep everyone happy and fed passed on John's Local Crab Shack and pulls into the Applebee's parking lot. They sit down and start to look at the menu. Everyone menu item is the same as the Applebee's they have been to 1000 times before at there home 780 miles away, but that is OK because he knows his kids likes the chicken strips. Mom and Dad, wanting a beverage to end the day, look at the beers. Sure, there is Bud Light, Miler Light, Coors Light, but there is also Clizzo Brewing Company Ellie's Brown Ale that is brewed just 6 miles away from the restaurant. Both parents order the beer and love it! Success for the entire family. So much so that Mom and Dad stop by the grocery store to pick up a six pack of Clizzo Brewing Company's locally produced Pig's Porter for the rest of the vacation week. The parents like it so much that they pick up another six pack on the way out of town to share with their beer loving friends back home. The restaurant got its money from the vacationers and the brewer got a new customer. Win-win.

So, what are local brewers to do with these new that are expected to be implemented by December 2016? As of now each brewer will have to make a decision; do they spend the money to have the product tested so it can potentially be sold in chain restaurants or don't spend the money and eliminate that distribution venue. From a strictly selfish perspective I don't mind if local beers aren't in chain restaurants because I try to avoid the chain restaurants as much as possible and opt for the local choices whenever possible. But I also see how shutting off this distribution option could result in reduced sales and the ultimate shuttering of a brewers doors.

The Beer Institute submitted what I think is a great compromise to the Food and Drug Administration, the department responsible for implementing this section of the ACA. The Beer Institute has suggested that a range of nutritional information could be submitted for a particular type of beer. For example, a menu would list all IPAs has having between XXX and XXX calories per serving. This would eliminate the need for every brewer to individually test their beer yet still provide the information to the consumer to make and informed decision. No final decision has been provided by the FDA regarding this suggestion but I think this would be a great compromise to benefit both restaurant goers and local brewers.

As for now, I hope the FDA, local brewers, Congress, the President, and whoever else is affected can come together to find a reasonable compromise. Sharing nutritional facts is good. Knowledge is good But let's not forget that a little legislation can trickle down and harm local businesses. Keep going to your local restaurants. Keep supporting your local farmers. Keep stepping up to the bar at your local brewery and filling up your growlers with locally brewed, fresh, delicious beer.

P.S. In case you are wondering the ACA is commonly known as "Obamacare". Far too many people don't even realize that the law is called the Affordable Care Act. The term "Obamacare" was created by those opposed to the Affordable Care Act in an attempt to create a negative link between the ACA and President Obama. The term has stuck around and has lost the negative connotation associated with it. I prefer to use the actual name of the legislation. Creating cutesy nicknames for legislation that a particular political group opposes as a way to diminish what the actual law states is just a public relations ploy for those who can't establish a reasonable argument for opposition. Said opposition results to juvenile name calling instead of providing a substantial argument in opposition to the legislation. This is just one of the many reasons why I don't trust any political party. Democrats and Republicans are both guilty of this "oh yeah, well you're a poophead" style of debate. If politicians, commentators, reporters, and pundits would support or oppose a particular position using logic, reason, and facts instead of resorting to personal attacks and name calling we would be a more informed and more engaged society.

P.P.S. I first read about this issue in the Fairfax County Times, a local newspaper. The article published by the Fairfax County Times was originally posted at Watchdog.org by Eric Boehm.

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