Developing a new menu labeling law for foodservice establishments, grocery food stores, and vending machines “has gotten extremely thorny,” Food and Drug Administrator Margaret Hamburg told the Associated Press earlier this month. FDA is also trying to determine who should be covered by the new rules.

The 2010 health care law charged the FDA with requiring chain restaurants and other establishments that serve food to put calorie counts on menus and in vending machines. The agency issued a proposed rule in 2011, but the final rules have since been delayed as some of those non-restaurant establishments have lobbied hard to be exempt. While the restaurant industry has signed on to the idea and helped to write the new regulations, supermarkets, convenience stores, and other retailers that sell prepared food say they want no part of it. “There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side, and we have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable,” Hamburg said.

She added that menu labeling has turned out to be one of the FDA’s most challenging issues, and while requiring calorie counts in some establishments might make sense on paper, “in practice it really would be very hard.”  Hamburg said FDA is in the final stages of writing the menu labeling regulations and the final rules should come out in the “relative near term.” FDA has tentatively said the rules are due this spring, but that deadline may be optimistic as the food industry and regulators continue to haggle over how they will be written.

The 2011 proposed rules would require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations, along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains, to clearly post the calorie count for each item on their menus. Additional nutritional information would have to be available upon request. The rules would also apply to vending machines if calorie information is not already visible on the package. The proposed rules exempted movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys and other businesses whose primary business is not to sell food. Alcohol would also be exempt. Supermarkets and convenience stores are looking for similar exemptions in the final rules. Representatives for the supermarket industry say it could cost them up to a billion dollars to put the rules in place — costs that would be passed on to consumers.

The labeling requirements were added to the health bill with the support of the restaurant industry, which has faced a growing patchwork of laws from cities and states. Several restaurant chains have already put calories on menus and menu boards nationwide.