Food Police Are Gluttons for Punishment - of Others

The FDA could impose regulations that would cost an ungodly lot — while achieving absolutely nothing.

Any day now the Food and Drug Administration could impose burdensome new regulations that would cost an ungodly lot — while achieving absolutely nothing. The rules, fiercely debated for the past three years, will dictate the disclosure of calorie counts for foods sold in restaurants, grocery stores, delis, bakeries, coffee shops, and even gas stations.

They are fiercely debated because they are so burdensome: “The Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget estimates the menu labeling regulation to be the third-most onerous regulation proposed in 2010,” according to Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez and Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The rules are expected to cost more than $1 billion and require more than 14.5 million hours of labor to meet.

They have been debated so long because bureaucrats have discovered that while calorie labeling sounds simple enough in theory, in practice it is — in the words of FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg — “extremely thorny.”

Consider, for example, pizza: The legislative director for Domino’s says “there are 34 million pizza combinations. We’ve done the math.” Listing the calorie content for each possible variation would require a very large sign indeed.

Yet only one Domino’s customer out of 10 visits a Domino’s location. The rest order over the phone or online. So shouldn’t posting the caloric content on the company website suffice? It should, but it will not: The FDA’s proposed standards require actual signs, at every location.

For starters. The food police have a gargantuan appetite for ordering other people around, and they seem to take an almost sadistic delight in stipulating precisely how the orders should be carried out.

In comments shortly after the menu labeling rules were proposed, the Center for Science in the Public Interest — they are the folks forever hectoring the public about the dangers of Chinese food, Italian food, movie theater popcorn, etc. — insisted that “if a restaurant has both an inside and drive-thru menu board, both must list calories.” And: “The calories should be at least as large and prominent as the name or price of the item.” And: “Calories should be posted for each size beverage available.” And: “The color, font size, font type, contrasting background, and other characteristics should all be comparable to the name and price of the item.”

What’s more: “Deli items or prepared foods that are dished up into standard containers should have signs posted next to each item with calorie counts for each container size available. For example, potato salad that is typically dished up into half-pint, pint and quart containers should list calories for one half-pint of potato salad, one pint of potato salad and a quart of potato salad.”

Rules such as these, the CSPI says, should apply not just to restaurants and supermarket delis but also to “salad bars, buffet lines, cafeteria lines, and self-serve, fountain soft drinks.” Moreover, “Calories must be posted for each pizza topping, sandwich component, omelet selection, sundae topping, or salad ingredient or dressing.”

The object of such Byzantine busybody-ness is plain enough: to “nudge” (former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein’s favorite word) people to ingest fewer calories.

Just one small problem: It doesn’t work.

“Restaurant menu labels don’t work, study shows,” reported “Today” back in July: “No matter how much calorie information is on the menu list, people still choose the food they like, not what’s supposed to be healthier, researchers from Carnegie Mellon reported Thursday. … ‘Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people’s ordering behavior at all,’ says Julie Downs, lead author of the new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.”

Yet the federal menu rules are all but inevitable because they are required by law — namely, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Congress passed the law, and people continue to find out what’s in it — to their dismay. In a delicious side note, some of those dismayed people include the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which last year objected to insurance rules promulgated under Obamacare by the D.C. Health Exchange Authority. Writing in The Washington Post, the CSPI’s Dennis Bass lamented being forced into an “untested, government-run system.” No word on how many calories are in that sauce for the gander.

What will happen when the costly new rules achieve nothing? The FDA has just given us a hint. According to the federal fact sheet “Trans Fats on the Nutrition Facts Label,” “As of Jan. 1, 2006, all packaged foods including dietary supplements under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition label.” Two weeks ago the FDA, having decided Americans still eat too much trans fats, announced it would ban them altogether.

Washington cannot, of course, ban calories, which (unlike trans fats) are necessary to sustain life. But egged on by extremist groups such as the CSPI, it could take stronger measures — and, eventually, probably will.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If you want the state to eventually provide you healthcare then you're just going to have to accept what it costs for the state to nudge you toward healthy choices.

  • DenverJay||

    Remember, in George Orwell's prophecy "Nineteen Eighty-Four", all citizens have to do morning exercises in front of the two-way TV, under the watchful eye of the Government health bureaucrat.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Achieve absolutely nothing? Hinkle needs to spend some time with a drill sergeant talking about how they break build recruits.

  • Ebriosa||

    They nudge them with long lists of caloric content?

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Is that how they're doing in the resort basic training these days? I just meant the first stage of indoctrination by getting recruits to do the most asinine and retarded things as a group because the guy in a smokey bear hat says boo.

  • ||

    We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the cremes and the fondues, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our bacon, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the cheeseburgers, we shall fight on the pizzas, we shall fight in the restaurants and in the kitchens, we shall fight in the barbecues; we shall never surrender

  • Christophe||

    +1 Fattest Generation

  • Rhywun||

    people still choose the food they like

    Yeah, the plan still has some kinks to work out. Don't worry, they're working on it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    If you like your breakfast, you can keep it. It'll just cost more and will have to come from a few authorized providers. Also, this breakfast is mandated. Failure to clean your plate may subject you to fines or, in certain egregious instances, jail time.

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    Depressing thought: how far away are we from unwrapping a hamburger and seeing instructions on how to consume it?

  • Being Waterboarded||

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    Not ridiculous enough. I foresee instructions on how to gauge temperature, how much the first bite should be in case first temperature gauge fails, and how long to chew each subsequent bite.

  • Ron||

    Thats a great idea I'll make a wrapping paper with a built in temperature gauge and then lobby the government to require it to be used I'll make millions.

  • Troglodyte Rex||

    Millions? Why think so small...this could be woth TRILLIONS.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Coors Light beat you to it.

    Now, if you'd invent Coors Light PopTarts, you might make millions.

  • DenverJay||

    Coors Light is swill. Now Pete's Wicked Ale pop-tarts is something I would consider...

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Who the fuck has time to put a pop tart in the toaster?

  • Cdr Lytton||

    All breakfasts will be served from 6 to 6:30 am. Eastern Standard Time. Suck it West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii.

  • pan fried wylie||

    Hawaii: Pristine Beaches and Waffles For Dinner

  • Rhywun||

    And if you don't want the contraceptive-enriched wheat flour, tough shit.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Catholic celiacs can see their doctor and priest afterwards.

  • OneOut||

    That they haven't yet made law as to what we can or cannot eat is a "glitz", not a kink.

  • wareagle||

    it never occurs to these folks that when someone gets a pizza or some other scare-quote food that the consumer already knows there may be some calories and fat grams involved. If not for force, proggressivism would have died long ago.

  • wheelock||

    If not for force progressivism isn't a thing at all.

  • BakedPenguin||

    People who order Domino's deserve what they get.

  • Being Waterboarded||

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yeah, my joke was probably stale. I haven't had their pizza for years.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Their "pizza" still sucks.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a bunch of nosey Parkers who should be ridden out of town on a rail. I have never seen any indication that the public was actually interested in any of their petty causes, or any evidence that they have even the most passing acquaintance with science.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Asymmetrical information... externalities... cock in my ass...

  • ||

    OMG BRO! SO OFFENSIVE! IMPLYING THAT TAKING COCK UP THE ASS IS A BAD THING AND THEREFORE GAY PEOPLE ARE DEFECTIVE!

    /Tonio

  • DenverJay||

    NOT THAT THERE'S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT!

  • Bill Dalasio||

    You know, I really wish someone would follow each and every one of these pricks around for a week and subject them to public shaming and ridicule (hopefully involving a bullhorn) for every decision they make that isn't completely, utterly and totally healthy. No one lives the way these half-wits would have each and every one of us live. Because, there are values in life beyond health consciousness. I'm sure if I wanted to, I could invent a "nutritionally perfect" brick of green gloop that would taste like hell, but do just the trick for nutritional content (and the fact that it tastes like hell would keep consumers from overindulging). No one would want to make it a staple of their diet though. The folks over at CSPI, however, ought to be required to do so as a condition of their non-profit status (okay, I kid, but only marginally).

  • Root Boy||

    You'd see a lot of double dealing if you did expose/shame them. Same with the sky is falling crowd. Gore has been exposed as a hypocrite (doesn't seem to phase him or prevent him from becoming rich though), the rest of the doom and gloom people need their travel and living arrangements exposed.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Well, OF COURSE, they double deal. The way they urge the rest of humanity to live is so profoundly dysfunctional that they'd have to be insane to actually try to live that way.

  • DenverJay||

    You see, these rules, like all of progressivism, are for OTHER people. The wise-ones-who-wish-to-rule-us-for-our-own-good are above such petty things as laws.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Just one small problem: It doesn’t work.

    Of course it doesn't.
    It doesn't matter how much you tell a guy the gals all have cooties. You give him the opportunity with an eager gal, he'll turn her into a mother. Three and a half million years of hormones demand it.
    Same with food.

  • ||

    I'm curious, if your menu sign is already as large as local sign ordinances will allow, would complying with a state or federal law to list calories receive an exemption from the ordinance? Or would we wind up with signs full of nothing but numbers, with the actual menu passing solely by word of mouth?

    Might make for a funny moment in a sci-fi movie, but it would suck in real life.

  • thorax232||

    No responsibility. Just suck on the teats of government your whole life and everything will be fine!

  • DenverJay||

    hmmm... is this where the milk for government cheese comes from?

  • kiyajeena215||

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  • silverfang789||

    I'm waiting for them to just flat out ban pop, chips, crackers and candy.

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