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The other response to the "we're only requiring this of the restaurants who can afford it" argument is that if that's the case, what's the point of having the law in the first place? The New York City law will only affect about 10 percent of the city's eateries. If the goal is to combat obesity, you're missing 90 percent of the places where people are eating.
What's more, according to the National Restaurant Association, we buy just six of our 21 weekly meals from restaurants. Put another way, menu labeling laws mean this newly available nutritional information will be put in front of the average American for only about three of every 100 meals. We aren't getting fatter because there aren't fat-count stickers on our Big Mac wrappers—as if any of us were mistaking a Big Mac or chili-and-cheese slathered fries for a healthy snack, anyway.
Of course, most of the really large chains already make nutritional information available—either online or in pamphlets you can find at the restaurant. Calorie counters and people watching their sodium or sugar intake can find this information relatively easily if they need it. And they can choose not to patronize those restaurants that don't make it available.
The menu labeling crowd wants nutritional information posted in big letters on menu boards or slapped on the packaging of the foodstuffs themselves. The goal of menu labeling legislation, then, is much more paternalistic than merely to "make more information available." It's to force nutritional information on people who aren't necessarily looking for it.
Then there are the lawsuits. When McDonalds voluntarily agreed to post its nutritional information on the Web several years ago, it wasn't long at all before the nutrition fanatics at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) attacked the company because a couple of McDonalds employees served covert CSPI reps overly large ice cream cones.
Earlier this month, a Seattle firm filed a class action suit against the Applebee's chain because of what the firm says were errors in its nutritional menu labeling. Days later, the same firm filed a similar suit in Texas, this time aimed at the Brinker chain, which owns brands such as Chili's and Macaroni Grill. Of course, if these restaurants deliberately mislabeled nutritional information or didn't bother to accurately test food labeled as "healthy," they should be held accountable.
But it's also impossible to make the same dish the exact same way every time. Such is the reason why large chains that already chose to make nutritional information available test the same dish multiple times to arrive at an average. But if you're looking for a reason to sue, you're only going to include in your claim the chains that served dishes that came out well over the posted data, not under or within a reasonable margin of error.
This is the main reason why restaurants have been reluctant to provide nutritional information in the first place. An extra pat of butter, an extra dash of salt, a substitution here or there, or even a generous chef who —God forbid—decides to give a customer a generous portion, could trigger a class action lawsuit.
These menu labeling bills have put restaurants in a no-win predicament. Their best bet is to mechanize their kitchens and to take all variety and spontaneity out of their menus—which isn't exactly a good outcome for consumers. And you can bet that when the latest round of menu labeling bills fails to make us any skinnier, the nutrition activists will start taking aim at the smaller chains and independent restaurants too.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason. A version of this article originally appeared at FoxNews.com.