My Fox Column…

Monday, June 16th, 2008

….this week explains why mandatory menu labeling laws are a bad idea.

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31 Responses to “My Fox Column…”

  1. #1 |  Zeb | 

    I really don’t think that a lot of people are going into McDonald’s or Chili’s thinking that their pile of grease and cheese is going to be low in salt and saturated fat. I can’t imagine that these laws are going to change anyone’s eating out habits. Information is good, but this seems more like picking on businesses which are unpopular among the “for the children” crowd.

  2. #2 |  HtownGuy | 

    Information is good, but this seems more like picking on businesses which are unpopular among the “for the children” crowd.

    I think the explanation is much simpler, and common to all new regulatory pushes: Control.

    If you have no marketable skills, and are envious of those who do, become a bureaucrat and reign ‘em in with your new powers.

  3. #3 |  Matt Moore | 

    Doesn’t the fact that nearly all chains already provide nutrition info already invalidate the argument that these laws will stifle variety and innovation because of the cost of testing? Unless some of these laws push labeling into the mom & pop and one-of-a-kind restaurants, that’s not really going to be an effect.

  4. #4 |  Matt Moore | 

    Too much already, already.

  5. #5 |  Skip Oliva | 

    Another reason for these laws is entrapment: Once nutritional labeling is mandatory, agencies like the FTC can send “undercover” agents to test food and see if the law is being followed.

  6. #6 |  freedomfan | 

    Previous attempts by nanny staters to regulate health and nutrition doesn’t leave much confidence that this would be effective or even that it’s really what the regulators want. I would wager that these labeling laws are more about punishing businesses that aren’t acting in someone’s perception of the collective social good than they are about reducing obesity. Kein’s comment that various government food control regulations “would reduce obesity” is pretty much unsubstantiated.

    Meanwhile, if this is really such a unilateral social good, why allow any exceptions? Why not regulate a single restaurant instead of just chains? Why not require nutrition labels at a corner fruit stand? (I hear those avocadoes are just loaded with fat and calories!) Why not require every adult in a household to pass an approved nutrition course and allow health authorities to fine and arrest those who serve unhealthy meals to minors? You know, “for the sake of the children?” Obviously, to catch such heinous acts, no-knock dinnertime raids by armed and body-armored agents may be necessary to insure that criminal parents can’t scramble to hide the chicken nuggets and throw some celery sticks on the table… (Probable cause? “We got a report about a fat kid.”)

    What’s really ‘rich’ is the presumption that Klein understands “how markets are supposed to work best.” (But then, I guess that IS the defining presumption of the pro-regulation crowd…) Forcing businesses to provide information that consumers aren’t asking for isn’t a pro-market reform. Perhaps people don’t care about the nutrition information about food when they are eating out or maybe they assume their own knowledge and experience with food is enough to go on.

    Either way, forcing prominent display of unrequested information is a market distortion and it will have unintended consequences. E.g., people will act less cautiously when they think the government is taking responsibility for their safety. And the cost advantage given to non-chain restaurants by these regulations will encourage a few more people to eat at them, where nutrition information is not posted. For those reasons and all the others Radley mentions, this regulation won’t encourage “innovation” in the market, except perhaps in ways to avoid it and in ways of paying off regulators.

  7. #7 |  supercat | 

    Right now, a chain can provide nutritional information for its common selections without being obligated to provide the information for every possible item a customer might order. A lot of restaurants will routinely customize items for regular customers, even without the customer having to re-specify the request each time. If customer Joe likes a lot of mayo on his sandwich, his sandwiches would likely have more fat than would be specified on the menu board. Under some proposed legislation (not certain about NYC’s in particular), it would be difficult or impossible for the restaurant to legally serve Joe his preferred sandwich.

    Perhaps a simpler but more useful approach would be to have restaurants list the typical quantities of nutritive ingredients, and allow customers to request that they would like their orders to be made (as nearly as possible) using those “typical” quantities. I would not expect that to be unduly revealing of proprietary information, since most of the interesting flavor of good restaurant food comes from things like spices which are essentially non-nutritive.

  8. #8 |  Mike | 

    #3 Which chain restaraunts do you know that have this info available? I haven’t seen this anywhere where I live except perhaps some fast food (Burger King). The one restaraunt chain around me that did do it (Ruby Tuesday’s) Stopped doing it.

    I agree that accurate descriptions are cost prohibative and a bit stifling, however I do think that some of the resistance from the industry isn’t due to this but due to the fact if the customer’s realized that that appitizer had 3x the normal fat allowance reccomended by the FDA they would lose buisness.

    I don’t like mandatory testing to a detailed level but perhaps a rough caloric/fat content would be interesting. I think there is a problem at the consumer level in that the average consumer has no idea what 30 grams of fat looks like and has no real way of knowing if a particular dish has 30 grams of fat in it.

  9. #9 |  Matt Moore | 

    #8 – http://rubytuesdays.com/files/Nutrition.pdf

    Chilis, Applebees, and Red Robin also all provide at least limited nutritional info. But supercat invalidated my qualm already… as long as restaurants don’t have to provide calorie counts they’re more likely to provide undocumented short-term specials.

  10. #10 |  Dave Krueger | 

    The reason why laws like this get get the public blessing is simply because people are all for any decree that makes someone else give them something, seemingly for free. That’s the basis for all expansion of government: the idea that the balance is going to come out in their favor. They’ve been doing it so long, it doesn’t even warrant a conscious thought process. They exert more effort picking out what color shirt to wear.

  11. #11 |  Mike | 

    Ahh, I can’t stand Applebees, never heard of Red Robin and haven’t been to a Chili’s in a while now.

    RubyTuesday’s is interesting in that they USED to provide all that info directly on thier menu and then they stopped. I assumed they discovered that providing the info caused customers to change spending habits to lower profit margins so they got rid of it to sell more burgers and desserts.

  12. #12 |  freedomfan | 

    They exert more effort picking out what color shirt to wear.
    Hey! Don’t spill the beans on my plan to seek office on a platform of giving everyone a closet full of clear shirts! ;-)

    (Of course, with the whole obesity epidemic, I may have to wait until this fat-labeling scheme whips everyone into shape…)

  13. #13 |  Myron | 

    These laws are just another form of the nanny state being overprotective. These politicians have nothing better to do with their time than intrude in to private matters. No business should be forced to include nutritional information. If the business decides to post the information, fine, if not its up the customer to decide if they want eat there or not. People used to use their common sense and knew their own likes and dislikes, not anymore it seems, many people need someone to tell them what to do. Its depressing to see people analyze food this way. I don’t eat fast food because it taste terrible but I do love all ethnic restaurants and the most important thing is taste so I don’t care about the nutritional value of their menus. These laws are just another reason politicians and there ilk.

  14. #14 |  Michael Chaney | 

    Why, at this point would a restaurant need to send something to be tested? It should be trivial to put this information together based on the ingredients, all of which have been tested or are well-known (such as fruits and vegetables, various meats, etc.).

    I regularly put together the nutritional information for what I eat, based on the individual ingredients. The lab-work is already done.

  15. #15 |  freedomfan | 

    Particularly when talking about restaurants which aren’t making a thousand of the same item every day the exact same way or who use local suppliers, the variations in ingredients and preparation can be a significant factor. In other words, an omelet will have more or less fat depending on how much butter is left in the pan from the last one; a chef may not use the same size dash of salt each time; a restaurant’s supplier may not provide each pork chop or chicken breast the exact same size or have the fat trimmed the same way; etc.

    When potential fines, lawsuits, or operating licenses are at stake, restaurants will want to make sure the data they put up reflects the food the way they prepare it.

    Meanwhile, from a standpoint of defending or appealing a challenge to their claimed nutritional info, a restaurant will want to be able to claim it has made a good faith effort to establish the info it presented. If the standard practice is (and it would be) to have a lab test the meals, or at least the components, then a restaurant can look careless if it hasn’t gone through the same effort. An owner will want to be able to say, “Look, we submitted it to XYZ Certified Nutritional Testing Labs and we used the results they gave us in the menu.”

  16. #16 |  nadine sellers | 

    well, they killed my Peking duck and my escargots, now they’re going to murder my mac and moo.
    They won’t be satisfied till all the food is dead and lifeless, is there an end to the sanitizing, quantifying of the very stuff of life?

    How can a system allow thousands of embalming preservative agents for human consumption–and–deny the consumer the right to suffer his own choices?

    No lab will ever measure the intake of poor nutrition of poor souls. Food is a basic need, nourishment is an instinct. these cannot be legislated, commonsense must be allowed to surface at some point in the maturing process, society must let the people grow up.
    or out…

  17. #17 |  Matt Moore | 

    Michael – I’m not a lawyer (or a nutritionist) but here’s the relevant section from the New York City code (health code 81.50, if you want to look it up):

    (1) Calculating calories. Calorie content values (in kcal) required by this section shall be based upon a verifiable analysis of the menu item, which may include the use of nutrient databases, laboratory testing, or other reliable methods of analysis, and shall be rounded to the nearest ten (10) calories for calorie content values above 50 calories and to the nearest five (5) calories for calorie content values 50 calories and below.

    Sounds to me like “nutrition databases” is the method you’re talking about.

  18. #18 |  Matt Moore | 

    Oh, and as far as people being worried about this leading to more lawsuits for incorrect calorie information? I’ll wager that the restaurants will try to use this law as a shield, just like the drug companies are attempting to get out of liability using FDA approval as a shield.

  19. #19 |  Chris in AL | 

    Option 1) Put a laminated pamphlet of nutritional info each ingredient on every table. Tell people to look it up themselves.

    Option 2) Put a single computer kiosk logged in to a dedicated nutrition database in the corner, tell people to look it up themselves.

    Option 3) Never have more than the required number of restaurants in one chain. Once you hit 9 or 14, then incorporate a new business, i.e. “Applebees Northside, Inc.” Applebees Southside, Inc.” etc…

    Besides, the only purpose here is to create another person here to ‘bribe’. You put whatever nutritional info you want on the menu, then ‘grease’ whatever jackass is in charge of making sure your food really complies…just like the health inspector, building inspector etc…

  20. #20 |  jwh | 

    Let’s see……New York, San Francisco, Seattle……..and which party is consistently, and reflexively put into power? Can New Orleans be far behind?

    Need anyone say more?

  21. #21 |  Warren | 

    The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein made this argument last month, writing, “It’s a bit rich to watch libertarians and associated anti-government types oppose a regulation that gives consumers more useful information.

    This asshole is so comfortable in justifying using force to get what he wants that the force disappears from his sight. He cannot see it and therefore does not give it any weight when discussing the views of others. So that’s why he thinks that “libertarians and associated anti-government types” are opposed to the concept of restaurants providing more information to consumers rather than the idea of pointing guns at restaurant owners and forcing them to behave.

  22. #22 |  Nando | 

    #14 Michael Chaney

    Why, at this point would a restaurant need to send something to be tested? It should be trivial to put this information together based on the ingredients, all of which have been tested or are well-known (such as fruits and vegetables, various meats, etc.).

    I regularly put together the nutritional information for what I eat, based on the individual ingredients. The lab-work is already done.

    This is exactly what I was going to post. There are DOZENS of websites out there that will tell you how many calories there are in a slice of tomato or in a leaf of lettuce. The same goes for meat, mayo, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, etc. Everything that goes into 99.95% of meals in a restaurant has already been tested and quantified. All a restaurant would have to do is research it, calculate it, and publish it. It doesn’t seem that hard to me.

    I’ll tell you why I’m actually for this law. Seven years ago I decided to go on a diet and exercise to lose some weight (I was 230lbs and wanted to get down to 190lbs). Needless to say, I still ate out at places that had nutritional info available at the time (like Subway and Burger King) and when I ate at restaurants that didn’t have the nutritional info available, I’d look it up and calculate it myself. I pretty much had memorized how many calories there were in the foods I ate the most. It took me 8 months, but I did lose the 40 lbs that I set out to lose, even while eating out three or four meals a week. I had set myself on a goal of no more than 2500 calories on days when I worked out (five days a week) and 2200 calories on days that I didn’t (Wednesday and Sunday). And you know what? Having the caloric values for foods helped me to meet my goals and lose the weight.

    Restaurants that are big enough to have 15 or more franchises can afford to pay a few interns that can do all the research and calculations. There is no reason why this couldn’t be put together in 4-6 months. Also, as long as they label their material saying that calories are estimates and they may vary widely with customized orders, I’m sure they’ll be covered when it comes to lawsuits.

  23. #23 |  Edintally | 

    Unless the law/ordinance specifically says that every possible combination need be accounted for, I think your article is a bit overblown.

    I’ve seen this information provided by fast food restaurants and while it wouldn’t stop me eating there in an emergency, I no longer eat at one normally. I’d love to see a calorie count next to an item (no need for all the nutritional elements).

    .02

  24. #24 |  Matt Moore | 

    Having the caloric values for foods helped me to meet my goals and lose the weight.

    But… but… how’d you find those caloric values if they weren’t right there on the menu? Magic?!

    I’m sure they’ll be covered when it comes to lawsuits.

    That’s actually a problem. If the numbers aren’t accurate, and you can’t sue them when they’re inaccurate, then they’ll just lie.

  25. #25 |  Nando | 

    Matt,

    Some I found by googling the hell out of them and others I found to be right there on the restaurant’s webpage. BK even allowed you to find out how many calories were in a sandwich by personalizing it (i.e. uncheck the mayo). Subway actually had 6 sandwiches printed on their cups and napkins (I believe they’re still there). That saved me time since I didn’t have to count/look up how many calories were in my meal.

    I believe that if people went into a McDonalds and saw that a Big Mac had less calories than a Crispy Chicken Club, maybe they’d choose the BM over the other and save themselves 90 calories right there. The same goes for one of their salads. If they could plainly see that the Caesar had 190 calories but the Creamy Southwest dressing had only 100, maybe they’d pick the one with 90 fewer calories.

    Nobody is arguing that putting the nutritional info somewhere accessible in a fast food joint will cause people to eat a healthy meal, but they might be able to save 100 or 200 calories and make it so that it’s not AS bad for them.

  26. #26 |  Nick T | 

    I think this is a very good article, Radley. At first I was doubtful you could make your side sound correct for anything other than principled grounds, and I think some of your arguments are overblown, but overall the fact that this information is already available and that so many restaurants are left out, makes this law hard to support. Of course infomraiton is good, but this is not the way to do it.

    Also, from a libertarian standpoint, this law isn’t about giving consumers more infomration, it’s about putting more obstacles and expenses in front of “big business” and protecting the little guy, which libertarians naturally hate because it’s very anti-free market.

    So while the principled argument here is most effective, but in the practical elements also make some sense. It seems clear that consumers enjoy chain restaurants that are doing better at resemlbing local, high quality restaurants. Fast food has started to offer more variety and customizable options, and we’ve seen the emregence of places liek Quizno’s (over subway), or Panera and other chains whose niche is to offer higher quality food, that’s highly customizable. The simple fact is that chains are more viable economically but peple still want to eat at nice, friendly places that make high quality food, not some generic chain spitting out cookie cutter entrees.

    This law interfere’s with that because the next time I go into a Ruth’s Chris in New York, I’ll wonder whether I am in fact sitting in a world-class steak house or a frickin’ TGI Fridays because the nutrition information will slapped all over the menu (like anyone isn’t already splurging a bit at a Ruth’s Chris). Not to mention that maybe I’d rather live in ignorant bliss about my 1800 calorie meal.

    If you want information, look it up? Is that so hard?

  27. #27 |  Nando | 

    it’s about putting more obstacles and expenses in front of “big business”

    Huh? How do you figure that the law’s intent is to create expenses for “big business?” I certainly don’t see it that way. We’ve already discussed that “big business” can hire a few interns (at a minimum cost) and use existing databases on the Internet to find the caloric values of each ingredient, individually, and then add them together. Two or three interns can take care of this over the summer with time to spare.

    As for those who want the info should look it up, I can’t agree with that, either. Maybe some people will actually see a number on the menu that will surprise them (as has happened to me when looking up nutritional info online). Why not have it available for those who’ve never thought that a regular Quizno’s sandwich could have over 1000 calories!

  28. #28 |  Doug | 

    I wonder it the restaurants could get away with a “technicality.” I mean, every single meal gets the following label: “10000 calories per serving, 500% recommended daily saturated fat content, 0% of any vitamin or mineral.”

    When the state says “Your label is incorrect” the business says “Prove it.” The state has to provide the lab results, and then the business goes to court and says to the judge “Your honor, the State of New York is upset that we are presenting the worst cast scenario to our customers. If a customer will eat something with 10000 calories, they won’t be harmed if it actually had 1500 calories.”

    This is why I’ll never own my own business. Too passive-aggressive. Cheers!

  29. #29 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Back when I was a kid, there was no such thing as business. It hadn’t been invented yet. Then ol’ Og, who lived in the next cave over from my family, decided to set up a restaurant selling his special sabre tooth tiger stew. Presto! The world’s first business.

    We all went over the very first day. A family size brimming gourd of stew cost only two straight sticks. But there were a lot of problems. The rocks we had to sit on were hard, service was slow, only one rest room, no wheel chair ramps, etc.

    So, the very next day, a bunch of folks in the neighborhood got together and formed a city council, elected a mayor, and passed a few laws to help ol’ Og understand how to run his new invention. By the end of the week, Og’s Stew Pot was renamed TGI Fridays and they had their IPO that spring.

    Everything went along just great for about 10,000 years, until the warriors from the land of Torrogod conquered our land. They were uncivilized but powerful. Our cultures clashed, but we learned from them and they learned from us. For example, they showed us that there could be all different kinds of restaurants. They didn’t have to all be called TGI Fridays and be exactly the same. In exchange, we showed them how to set up a city council and pass laws.

  30. #30 |  Nick T | 

    “We’ve already discussed that “big business” can hire a few interns (at a minimum cost)”

    Well, if we’ve discussed it then it must be true. I’m sure there would be no other expense associated with reprinting menus, making sure every food item was prepared in the same manner, lost business as people didn’t like to eat at a place that had the unhealthines of the food they were eating written ON THE MENU, or the fact that the new menus seemed tacky (or any of the other reasons Radley cited). You’re so right that there is only a negligible expense. AND you’re also right that as long as there is no expense then it’s a good idea.

    (I was explaining why libertarians might still be opposed to this law while staying true to their principles: it’s unfair as it only targets big business. Is this really up for debate?)

    How about the city of New York hire those same lazy intenrs to create a database for all the people in the city to LOOK UP online and so they can make informed decisions. It’s the government providing a free service at NO COST to taxpayers, without making people’s dining experiences less enjoyable and creating a teensy-weensy inconvenience for SOME restaurants by FORCING them to do something. Either that or we could argue that informaiton should be more than just readily available, it should be shoved in your face, even though you are an adult. Sign me up for that!

  31. #31 |  Eric Hart | 

    A big problem with this law here in NYC is that it only publishes calorie counts. Diet soda has less calories than nonfat milk, but which do you think is actually healthier for you? When the government reduces food to a few numbers, it ignores the complexity of nutrition; locally-grown produce is better for you, even though the numbers are the same. A high-calorie meal at breakfast affects your body differently then one right before bed. And most importantly, there is still much that is unknown (not to mention misinformation) about diet and nutrition.

    So not only do laws like this try to regulate personal choices, but they present information that is of little use.

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