The health care reform bill moving through the Senate includes a provision requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. The Los Angeles Times reports that the proposal has provoked a battle between the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which wants to keep it limited to companies with 20 or more locations operating under the same name, and the big restaurant chains, which want it to cover their smaller competitors. Chains such as Domino's, KFC, and El Pollo Loco claim the current cutoff would leave 75 percent of the country's restaurants uncovered. They want to include companies with three or more locations, plus individual restaurants with $1 million or more in annual sales. "A pizza is a pizza no matter where it is purchased," an El Pollo Loco executive tells the Times.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which faults fast food chains for giving customers too much value for their money, is siding with the NRA and the smaller companies it represents, presumably because it fears a broader mandate would be politically untenable. "It is easier for the big chains to provide accurate information and deal with government regulation," says CSPI's Margo Wootan. But according to the Times, the bill does not require expensive dish-by-dish laboratory analysis:
Technological advances have made it inexpensive to calculate the nutritional content of food, undermining the argument that smaller restaurant companies and large stand-alone eateries need an exemption from the regulations, said [Jonathan] Blum, [a senior vice president at Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell].
The legislation would allow restaurants to use software that costs $1,000 or less to calculate the nutritional content of recipes. Such programs are frequently used by hospitals and school districts and include 15,000 to 32,000 foods in their databases, depending on the software.
Such lenience raises the question of how accurate the calorie counts will be and the related issue of whether restaurants will be held liable should this government-ordered information prove to be imprecise. I've argued, in connection with lawsuits against Applebee's and other chains that have misrepresented the nutritional content of their food (noted by Nick Gillespie the other day), that consumers have a right to expect the information restaurants voluntarily provide about their dishes will be accurate, allowing for a reasonable margin of error. But when the government forces restaurants to provide calorie counts, in effect dictating a kind of standardization these businesses may not be good at providing and to which they otherwise would not aspire, it seems unfair to sue them when they fall short.
More on conspicuous calorie counts here. My column tomorrow will discuss the mistaken premise underlying the federal menu mandate and other anti-obesity provisions in the Affordable Health Choices Act: that making Americans thinner will reduce medical spending.