by Julie Kelly and Jeff Stier
In its endless attempt to turn the country into one giant Weight Watchers meeting, the Obama Administration tucked away a little-known provision in the health care law that authorizes the FDA to force certain businesses to post the calorie count for every menu item.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are unhappy with the new proposed rules on menu labeling (five years in the making) and this week, Congress will consider H.R. 2017, the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, to scale back some of the FDA’s most onerous rules set to take effect later this year.
As two culinary experts who have had a long career in both cooking and writing about food, we both agree this legislation can’t wait.
Last year, the FDA issued a set of inflexible rules that even suggests handcuffs and jail time for those restauranteurs who fail to comply. The proposed policy is a cassoulet of bureaucratic incursions – not to mention a violation of our right to eat in peace – that targets neighborhood restaurants, grocery stores and even vending machines. Convenience stores would be required to post calorie information wherever food is displayed, which could basically be every two feet if you think about how your local convenience store is configured.
Businesses would have to print multiple menus, going so far as to classify advertisements as a menu that need a calorie count. “In our business, we send out lots of advertising flyers, top boxes with flyers and put up posters in stores,” Domino’s executive vice president Lynn Liddle told a House committee last summer. “None of these were ever intended as menus.” The FDA won’t even allow a range of calories for items like pizza and sandwiches, creating an impossible demand that would be laughable if it didn’t turn your corner pizza joint owner into a felon (Domino’s Pizza offers 34 million ways to order a pizza).
And the costs are exorbitant: The White House’s Office of Management and Budget estimates the new law will cost $1 billion and require a staggering 14 million compliance hours which, in this administration’s parlance, makes it a job creator.
The FDA is largely following the Bloombergian approach to appetite control. In 2008, Mayor Bloomberg made New York City the first city in the nation to require restaurant chains with 15 or more stores to post the calorie count of all menu items. At the time, about 1/3rd of all the city’s restaurants fell under that category. The law was a flop and failed to achieve the mayor’s top goal of reducing obesity rates in the Big Apple and did nothing to stop diners from eating the same amount of calories as before. A survey released last year by NYU’s Langone Medical Center found no change in the eating habits of New Yorkers in the last six years: “Researchers found that the average number of calories bought by patrons at each sitting between January 2013 and June 2014 was statistically the same as those in a similar survey of 1,068 fast-food diners in 2008, when New York City initially imposed menu labeling. Diners were surveyed at major fast-food chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s.”
The study actually found an uptick in calorie intake from 2008 to 2013-2014. Shortly after the policy was introduced in 2008, calories at labeled restaurants were 783 per meal; in 2013-14, the calorie range was 804-839 per meal.
“Our study suggests that menu labeling, in particular at fast-food restaurants, will not on its own lead to any lasting reductions in calories consumed,” says study senior investigator Brian Elbel, PhD, an associate professorat NYU Langone’s Department of Public Health.
H.R. 2017, sponsored by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-) and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), which the House will consider this week, will try to blunt the same costly yet futile Bloobergian plan for the country. The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act decriminalizes any mistakes in menu-labeling; the sandwich shop employee won’t go to jail if he accidentally exceeds the stated calorie count with an extra piece of cheese. It would also exempt convenience and grocery stores from the law.
This could be a final rebuke to an administration that has tried in vain for seven years to stem obesity rates and make Americans “healthier.” From a well-intentioned “Let’s Move” campaign to harsher school lunch rules that will likely yield the opposite result of the stated goals, the Obama Administration’s food policies will have to be viewed as one of its biggest failures. And as more questions are raised about nutrition science – and we are now finding out that much of what we’ve been told by the federal government about how we should eat has been dead, flat wrong – the next administration would be well-advised to reverse course.
Julie Kelly is a cooking teacher and food policy writer. She’s been published in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Forbes, The Hill and Huffington Post. Jeff Stier New York, NY Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, and you can reply to him on Twitter @JeffaStier.