Health law to put calorie info on vending machines
Local business owner concerned about impact

By Holly Ramer, Associated Press and Arthur Thomas, Freeman Staff

Jan. 2, 2014

WAUKESHA - Office workers in search of snacks will be counting calories along with their change under new labeling regulations for vending machines included in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law.

Requiring calorie information to be displayed on roughly 5 million vending machines nationwide will help consumers make healthier choices, says the Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to release final rules in early 2014.

The FDA estimates the cost to the vending machine industry at $25.8 million initially and $24 million per year after that, but says if just .02 percent of obese adults ate 100 fewer calories a week, the savings to the health care system would be at least that great.

The rules will apply to about 10,800 companies that operate 20 or more machines. While the proposed rules would give companies a year to comply, the National Automatic Merchandising Association has suggested a two-year deadline and is urging the government to allow as much flexibility as possible in implementing the rules.

Rick Pavlic, owner of Pavlic Vending Services in Waukesha, said he was aware the regulation was on the horizon and has been monitoring the issue through his trade association.

“It’s going to be potentially a significant pain in the neck,” he said.

Pavlic operates almost 1,500 machines and said the proposed regulations will cause problems for him when it comes to putting labels in every single one. On top of that, he said it will add a step to the process for changing the offerings in a machine.

“I think it’s nonsense,” Pavlic said. “I think it’s a continuation of the nanny state.”

He said the average consumer knows what is in any item he or she purchases. If someone is buying a Snickers, he said, it probably isn’t the first time.

The rules are not expected to be formally in place until some time in March or April and Pavlic said the burden they will place on him could depend on the final regulations.

“Until they publish the rules, we don’t know exactly what we have to do,” he said.

It may make it easier, Pavlic said, if the regulations would allow the makers of candy, snacks and soft drinks to put nutrition info on the front of packages and have it count for the vending machine requirement.

“Whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be an inconvenience,” Pavlic said. 

The FDA is also working on final rules for requiring restaurants to post calorie information. A 2011 study in New York found that only one in six customers looked at the information, but those who did generally ordered about 100 fewer calories. A more recent study in Philadelphia found no difference in calories purchased after the city’s labeling law took effect.

“There is probably a subset of people for whom this information works, who report using it to purchase fewer calories, but what we’re not seeing is a change at an overall population level in the number of calories consumed," said Brian Ebel, the study’s author and an assistant professor at New York University’s department of population health and medicine.

Ebel said he wouldn’t be surprised if the vending machine labels end up being equally ineffective, but it’s possible that consumers might pay more attention to them for a couple of reasons. In some locations, a vending machine might be the only food option, he said. And reading a list of calorie counts on a machine will be less overwhelming than scanning a large menu at a fast-food restaurant with other customers waiting in line behind you, he said.