Theaters fight proposed calorie disclosure rule for movie snacks

By Jeffrey Young
Sunday, March 13, 2011

Movie theater chains are fighting a federal regulation that would require them to disclose that their popcorn contains as many as 1,460 calories, or equal to almost three Big Macs.

Chain restaurants with at least 20 U.S. locations would have to post the calorie content of menu items under a provision in the health-care law. Regulators will propose rules by March 23 and can include concession stands and grocery stores, according to guidance that came out last year.

Movie theaters and grocery stores are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to avoid the proposed regulation. Theater chains led by Tennessee-based Regal Entertainment Group generate as much as 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.

Grocery stores also shouldn't be subject to the rule, said Erik Lieberman, regulatory counsel for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group representing chains including Safeway Inc.

"There's no indication that the Congress ever intended to regulate supermarkets," he said. Teena Massingill, a Safeway spokeswoman, did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

Movie theater chains were supposed to be targeted by the mandate, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who sponsored a food-labeling bill in the House that was incorporated into the health-care law. The requirement "is meant to let people know what it is that they're consuming," she said.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who sponsored a similar measure, aimed for a broad definition of retail food operations that included movie theaters and grocery stores 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 fries and a medium soft drink has 1,130 calories while a theatergoer at Regal Cinemas would not 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.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed popcorn sold by Regal Entertainment, Cinemark and AMC Entertainment of Kansas City, Mo., 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 who is 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, according to the firm's annual report. Thirty percent of Cinemark's $2.14 billion in 2010 sales came from food and drinks, according to the company's annual report.

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