RHODE ISLAND RESTAURANTS ARE WELCOME TO JOIN OUR NETWORK
What’s at risk?
As a hospitality manager, you have a right to advertise your food and beverage products in a way that casts them in their best light. To misrepresent your products is a violation of what has come to be known as Truth in Menu laws. Inaccurate or incomplete menus can lead to injuries and illness affecting guests who have food allergies. It can also be cause for legal action by patrons who feel you have misrepresented your products or by governing agencies for failure to comply with their requirements.
What are your legal obligations?
The various Truths in Menu laws are overseen by dozens of agencies and administrative entities, taking the labeling of food to much greater degrees of accuracy. These laws are constantly being revised. It is possible, however, for a food-service operator to stay up to date and in compliance with Truth in Menu laws. The method is relatively straightforward, and the key is honesty in menu claims, both in regard to the price that is charged and the food that is served. Menus should accurately reflect the price to be charged to the customer. If one dozen oysters are to be sold for a given price, one dozen oysters should be delivered, and the price on the bill should match that on the menu. Likewise, if the menu price is to include a mandatory service charge or cover charge, these must be brought to the attention of the guest. Accuracy in menus involve a great deal more than honestly and precisely stating a price. It also entails being careful when describing many food attributes, including the preparation style, ingredients, origin, portion sizes, and health benefits. Because this area is so complex and because consumers increasingly demand more accurate information from restaurants, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and many state associations have produced educational material designed to assist food-service operators as they write and prepare menus. “A Practical Guide to the Nutrition Labeling Laws” is a publication written specifically for the restaurant industry and outlines everything you need to know about nutrition claims you can make for your menu items. You can secure a copy for a modest charge from the NRA. In addition, the Federal government issues food description standards that can be of great assistance.
How can you better promote your organization?
Under federal law certain food items and preparation techniques must be carried out in a very precise way, if that item or technique is included on a menu. The list is long, but as examples, items designated as GRILLED must be grilled, and not mechanically produced with “grill marks” then steamed before service; if you describe it as FRESH, the product cannot be frozen, canned, dried, or processed... and so forth
Restaurants are not currently required to divulge their ingredient lists to their guests, but there are specific situations when the ingredients listed on a menu must precisely match those used to make the item. For example, if the menu says maple syrup, then colored table syrup should not be served. If substitutions to the menu must be made, the guest should be informed of those substitutions before ordering.
For many menu items, the origin of the product or its ingredients is very important. Many consumers prefer Colorado Lamb, Washington apples, and Bluepoint (Long Island) oysters to other varieties. It is deceptive and illegal to use these types of terms to describe similar menu items from other places.
Double check the weights of items served to make sure you are not misrepresenting portions. For example, “Large” East Coast oysters must, by law, contain no more than 160-210 oysters per gallon, while “Large” Pacific Coast oysters, by law, may contain no more than 64 oysters per gallon.
The federal government issues very strict guidelines on what you can and cannot say about nutritional claims. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued regulations to insure that food-service operators who make health benefit claims on their menus can back them up. The list is too lengthy to publish in full, but as examples, if you claim an item has low sodium, fat, or cholesterol, the item must contain low amounts of these nutrients; to be considered “heart healthy,” a menu item must meet very specific criteria.
Provide source material
When printing health benefit claims on a menu, further information about the claim should be available somewhere on the menu, or be provided on request. The FDA permits restaurants to back up their menu claims with a “reasonable” base, such as cookbooks, databases, or other secondhand sources that provide nutrition information. If needed, provide a menu caution statement: If your menu contains items that routinely cause people problems (i.e., small bones in fish, sulfates in wine) then it may be wise to state on your menu that these elements are present, and that the guest should alert the server to any food allergies prior to ordering. Check with local experts for assistance: The enforcement of “Truth in Menu” regulations is undertaken by state and local public health departments which have direct jurisdiction over restaurants by monitoring their food safety and sanitation practices. In today’s litigious society, any menu containing nutritional or health claims should be reviewed by both an attorney and a dietician. Train your servers on how to discuss the menu with customers: In addition to carefully developing menus, Truth in Menu laws require that restaurants truthfully and accurately specify what their servers say about menu items and how their food products are promoted or shown in advertisements. If meat, fish, poultry, shellfish or eggs are served raw, under-cooked, or cooked to order, a disclosure identifying the foods, plus a reminder in 11 pt type, must appear on the menu or in a written disclosure declaring that eating the specified types of animal products as raw or under-cooked “may increase your risk of food borne illness.
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Chef Walter Potenza is the creator of Truth in Dining Rhode Island a FREE Consumer Advocacy Network intended on protecting consumers from fake and untrustworthy food sources. Too many food establishments take for granted that the general consumer has limited food knowledge and will be easily convinced. Today's consumers are much much intuitive, prepared and in touch with a fingertip. Food establishments have a moral obligation in delivering exactly what is advertised on their menu' and special boards. A menu' is a contract in which an establishment promises to deliver what is listed including additional information on health tips, nutrition and overall history, geography and territory. After all the consumer is willing to pay for these services and goods and should be rewarded with honesty and a pleasurable experience. Since Rhode Island is well-known for scrumptious restaurants and well-rounded ethnic cuisines it may be a great addition to raise the bar even further.