WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration in recent days issued three guidance-to-industry documents to assist food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants meet consumers’ food needs during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The guidance documents temporarily relax certain food labeling rules that if rigorously enforced may result in bottlenecks in the supply chain and threaten consumer access to food.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the sharp contraction in the foodservice sector, particularly with the temporary demise of in-restaurant dining. Consumers have turned to grocery stores and other retail outlets for nearly all their food needs. Some restaurants continue to serve food but only on a takeout basis. The seismic changes in how food is purchased has upended what was a well-honed food distribution system.   

The first guidance document, “Temporary policy regarding nutrition labeling of certain packaged food during the COVID-19 public health emergency,” was issued March 26. The guidance temporarily relaxed some nutrition labeling rules. The temporary rules apply to restaurants seeking to sell packaged food to consumers, food manufacturers with inventory intended for foodservice, and manufacturers when retail packaging for certain foods is unavailable.

For restaurants that want to sell packaged food directly to consumers or to other businesses, and for food manufacturers with inventory labeled for use in restaurants, the FDA said it won’t object if the packaged food lacks a Nutrition Facts Label, provided no nutrition claims are made.

Information that will be required where applicable includes a statement of identity, an ingredient statement, the name and place of the business of the food manufacturer, packer or distributor, net quantity of contents, and allergen information.

If retail packaging for certain food products is unavailable, the FDA said it won’t object to the further production of food labeled for use in restaurants but is intended to be sold other than to restaurants until the retail packaging is available.

The agency said it also intends to work with manufacturers for the remainder of the year in the use of the updated Nutrition and Supplement Facts labels and will not focus on enforcement. The FDA previously said it would do so for the first six months of the year following the Jan. 1, 2020, compliance date.

In its second guidance document, “Temporary policy regarding nutrition labeling of standard menu items in chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments during the COVID-19 public health emergency,” the FDA relaxed menu labeling rules as many foodservice outlets transition from in-store dining to takeout.

“Because calorie information is required to be declared for standard menu items when a consumer makes a selection, establishments may have difficulty providing this information during a rapid transition to a takeout business practice,” the agency said. “Additionally, some of these establishments may be experiencing temporary disruptions in the food supply chain, which may lead to different menus or substitutions that could affect the accuracy of the nutrition information.

“To provide flexibility to these chains covered by menu labeling requirements, FDA will not object if establishments do not meet menu labeling requirements during this public health emergency.”

The FDA’s third guidance to industry on labeling, “Temporary policy regarding packaging and labeling of shell eggs sold by retail establishments during the COVID-19 public health emergency,” provides flexibility regarding certain packaging and labeling requirements for shell eggs.

“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumer demand for shell eggs has increased,” the FDA said. “Additional shell eggs for consumers are available, but appropriately labeled retail packaging is not available for all such shell eggs. To meet the increased demand for shell eggs in light of the limited availability of retail packaging, we are providing temporary flexibility regarding certain packaging and labeling requirements for shell eggs so that industry can meet increased consumer demand.”

The FDA said it does not intend to object to the sale by retail food establishments of shell eggs in cartons or flats without labels, provided the following circumstances are present:

  • The retail food establishment displays clearly at the point of purchase (for example, on a counter card, sign, tag affixed to the product, or some other appropriate device) the following information: statement of identity; the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor; and safe handling instructions for shell eggs.
  • If shell eggs from multiple suppliers are offered for sale at the same time and in the same location, it is clear to consumers which point of sale labeling applies to which of the shell eggs that are offered for sale.
  • The shell eggs are sold by the complete carton or flat (for example, 30 eggs are sold in a flat designed to hold 30 eggs).
  • There are no nutrition claims at the point of purchase for the shell eggs.