Big Pizza makes a last-ditch effort to avoid labeling calories

Be right back, ordering Domino's.

Big Pizza vs. ACA. The pizza lobby (yup, there is such a thing) is taking one last swipe at the Affordable Care Act (ACA) rule requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus starting in May of this year.

The American Pizza Community (tagline: “promoting pizza as a shared meal in communities everywhere”) is a group that includes Papa John’s, Little Caesar’s, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and others. And it really doesn’t want calorie labeling to happen. The group claims the new labeling requirements will cost $4,000-$5,000 to implement per store, per year, potentially taking a bite out of franchisees’ profits. But pizza chains also have a much more obvious reason to block the labeling requirements: A single slice of Domino’s pizza with extra cheese contains 430 calories, 39 percent of your recommended daily allowance of saturated fat, and 42 percent of the sodium you should eat in a day. And who the hell eats just one slice?

“A pimply-faced teen-ager who throws an extra handful of cheese onto a large Cali Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza could be thrown in the federal lockup for a year.”

It doesn’t take a lot of digging to figure out that the American Pizza Community wasn’t actually formed to encourage people to gather ‘round the dinner table in a Norman Rockwell-style celebration of the slice, though it continues to market itself as the champion of the small pizza-slinger. According to Bloomberg, it was formed in 2010 out of a lobbying effort by Domino’s. Its members hit the ground running that year, “fighting the aspects of menu labeling that they found most objectionable,” then taking a trip to Washington in 2012 to ply Congress with free pizza. Pizza chains donated $1.5 million in campaign contributions in the 2012 and 2014 elections, 88 percent of which went to Republican candidates.

Do we really have to do this, Pizza Lobby? Can’t you just quietly post your calorie counts, like McDonald’s and Subway have already done, so we can dip our fourth slice into that borderline-obscene Papa John’s garlic butter in peace? Apparently not. Moving on.

As part of its efforts to avoid the labeling requirements, which have been on the horizon since the ACA was first passed, the American Pizza Community supported a 2015 act called the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act. That act died in Congress, but it was reintroduced in January of this year and hasn’t yet been brought to a vote. The proposed law includes a loosened definition of “serving size” (the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it would “allow [chains] to list calories for half a muffin or tiny slices of pizza”). And perhaps most significantly, the act exempts many delivery restaurants from in-store calorie labeling requirements. That means the Domino’s and Papa John’s of the world, which have the data to back up the claim that more than half of their orders are made online or via phone, would have a pretty convenient out. TBD on whether the act will pass before the May 5th deadline. Congress has a few other things on its mind right now.

In other calorie-labeling news, the Obama administration’s update to Nutrition Facts labels in grocery stores, set to kick in in July of 2018, is already under fire. Politico’s Morning Ag reports FDA commissioner nominee Scott Gottlieb said during his confirmation hearing that he’d be willing to consider pushing back the compliance deadline to align with new GMO labeling requirements, which could mean we won’t see changes until 2020 or later. Big Frozen Pizza is surely pleased about that (and yes, there’s such a thing as Big Frozen Food, too).

Of course, no good regulatory debate is complete without a National Review headline like this one: “Here Come the Pizza Gestapo.” Published this week, the story makes the odd case that “a pimply-faced teen-ager who throws an extra handful of cheese onto a large Cali Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza could be thrown in the federal lockup for a year.” Hm, not exactly. But the story also cites a literature review that found calorie labeling doesn’t affect people’s choices as much as public health advocates would hope. Touché.

Unless the American Pizza Community has its way in passing the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act or delaying the rule’s deadline, you should start seeing calorie labeling in pizza chains within a month. In the meantime, we’ll be kissing blissful ignorance goodbye with slice after slice of sausage and pepperoni, percent daily values be damned.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.