Movie theater chains are fighting a U.S. requirement that they 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 will have to post the calorie content of menu items under a provision in the federal healthcare law. Regulators will propose rules by March 23 and can include concession stands and grocery stores, according to guidance that came out last year.
"It's easy enough to blow your whole diet for a week from one snack at the movie theater," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "Just because you happen to be watching a movie while you're eating doesn't mean you aren't eating out."
Movie theaters and grocery stores are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to avoid the proposed regulation. Theater chains led by Knoxville, Tenn.-based Regal Entertainment Group, the biggest U.S. chain by sales, 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 Assn. of Theatre Owners, a Washington 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 that the FDA exempt companies that get less than 35% 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, the Arlington, Va., trade group that represents chains including Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.
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 healthcare 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 his 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 Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. would know that a Big Mac meal with a medium French fries and a medium Coca-Cola has 1,130 calories while a theatergoer at Regal Cinemas wouldn't 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.
Movie theaters offer fare similar to fast-food establishments and should be subject to the same rules, Wootan said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed popcorn sold by Regal Entertainment, Cinemark of Plano, Texas, and AMC Entertainment Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., in 2009 and found that 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 26 to 45 years old should consume 2,600 calories a day, according to guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.