Vending machines need face lift for Obamacare regulations

By Cait Orton | Posted - Mar 11th, 2013 @ 11:29am

PROVO — Starting in April, vending machines will be required to be transparent with nutrition information and labels, even if the vending machine doesn't currently have the capability.

The new regulations are part of section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act passed in 2010, and like many other health efforts across the country, the rules aim to raise awareness around not-so-healthy choices.

"The vending machine operator must 'provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button that includes a clear and conspicuous statement disclosing the number of calories contained,' " the article states.

It's a similar regulation to that being implemented for retail food establishments, which requires calories to be displayed next to menu items. However, under the act, retail food establishments can still be regulated by state laws if they aren't identical to federal. But vending machine regulations don't have that exemption: regardless of state laws, all vending machines operators will be regulated the same.

"No state or locality may have a requirement concerning vending machines that is not 'identical to' the Federal requirements, regardless of how many vending machines the operator owns or operates," an action notice from the Food and Drug Administration states.

Initially, vending machine operators were largely stumped by the mandate and that confusion lead to enforcement being pushed back until 2013. Many vending machine operators are now scrambling to get ready for the regulations to go into effect.

AirVend, a Provo-based company, invented a retrofitting external device that can be synced with vending machines to comply with the new federal regulations. It's a touch screen, wireless device that displays nutritional information to consumers.

"Members of my family have been in the vending industry for 20+ years," said AirVend's founder, Chad Francis in the product announcement. "As a software engineer and technologist, it always pained me to see such a lack of technology in the industry. My team and I are very pleased to be in a position to make a real difference."

AirVend touts its device as a seamless way to transition old-school vending machines to compliance. The wireless device simply attaches to a vending machine and draws its information from a cloud-based database with nutrition information for thousands of products. Essentially, it does all the work, which is something vending operators worry about with the new regulations.

Other companies have invented similar devices, like the VendScreen and MIND. Major soda companies like CocaCola and PepsiCo committed to displaying calories on their vending machines in 2013 as well.

In total, these digital additions to older vending machines may save vending machine operates millions of hours in labor. The FDA estimated over 14 million recurring hours will be spent, mostly by vending machine operators, for maintaining the machines to be in compliance with the regulations, including more than 31,000 hours for record keeping alone.

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