Nutritional Information That Is Conspicuous by Its Absence


Beginning next month, New York City restaurants that sell standardized dishes and provide nutritional information to the public will be required (PDF) to post calorie counts on their menu boards. (According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the regulation covers about 10 percent of the city's restaurants.) Concerned that listing the calories for every variation they offer will be impractical, several restaurant chains have stopped providing nutritional information, hoping to escape the new requirement (the sort of unintended consequence I predicted last year). Wendy's explains:

We regret that Wendy's cannot provide product calorie information to residents or customers in New York City. The New York City Department of Health passed a regulation requiring restaurants that already provide calorie information to post product calories on their menu boards—using the same type size as the product listing.

We fully support the intent of this regulation; however, since most of our food is made-to-order, there isn't enough room on our existing menu boards to comply with the regulation. We have for years provided complete nutritional information on posters inside the restaurant and on our website. To continue to provide caloric information to residents and customers of our New York City restaurants on our website and on our nutritional posters would subject us to this regulation. As a result, we will no longer provide caloric information to residents and customers of our New York City restaurants.

I'm not sure how Wendy's plans to stop New Yorkers from seeing the nutritional information (PDF) on its website. (Possibly this announcement is a ploy aimed at encouraging the New York City Council to modify the health department's regulation.) In March the Associated Press reported that Quiznos and White Castle also had withdrawn nutritional information in anticipation of the new menu rule, which applies to restaurants that make such information available "on or after March 1, 2007."

Starbucks, by contrast, is taking on the menu board challenge, The New York York Times reports:

Executives at the Starbucks corporate headquarters in Seattle said they will comply with the new law at their 326 stores in New York, but they have no idea how. The company offers 87,000 drink combinations, depending on the kind of milk, amount of syrup and whether the drink has whipped cream, said Valerie O'Neil, a Starbucks spokeswoman.

Companies that offer several variations on one item can list a calorie range, and that might help. Or the company might ask for permission from the health department to put the information near the cash register instead of on the menu board.

Inspired by New York's example, the California and Connecticut legislatures are considering similar menu board requirements.

[Thanks to Stevo Darkly, Urkobold, and Kwix for the tip.] 

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  1. I just want to say that it is freakin’ awesome that Urkolbold got a hat tip.

  2. Starbucks would do well to cover the walls, ceiling, floormats, etc., with calorie count information.

  3. When will the CO2 emission ‘green’ content
    created by the growth, harvest, transport
    and digestion of the product be displayed?

    When we have national IDs barcodes tattoos
    we can require our weight to be displayed
    upon both entry compared to our last visit.

  4. dj_of_raleigh,

    I have to ask – it’s been, not bugging me, but making me wonder – why are your comments always formatted kind of funny? They look like poetry, but they don’t read like it.

  5. Good God. I don’t even know what the fuck to say.

  6. I suspect that Wendy’s could employ some sort of IP blocking to prevent some, but by no means all, NYC residents from viewing the nutrition information online. If NYC took them to court, they would have proof of trying to prevent citizens from viewing the information in accordance with the law.

  7. Actually, read it again highnumber, dj_of_raleigh’s post actually does read like poetry. Say it out loud, and pause briefly after each line. See?

  8. This is crazy y’all. I’m serious. Possibly one a the most loopiest guvmint regs I’ve heard of yet.

  9. This is almost as big as that time President Bush credited Urkobold for getting him to invade Iraq.

  10. Remember when Margaret Thatcher thanked Urkobold for both guiding the Falklands War strategy, and for fathering her children?

    That was something.

    The Starbucks complaint seems pretty weak. They have no problem calculating the sale total for an infinite number of combinations of items in a purchase.

    87,000 combinations is a trifle. They could probably get the registers programmed to print the calories on the receipt.

  11. Except that the law doesn’t require the nutrition information be printed on the receipts. It requires it to be listed on the menu board with the menu items, in the same sized font.

    87,000 combinations makes for a really, really big menu board.

  12. It requires it to be listed on the menu board with the menu items, in the same sized font.

    Oh, why not just slip down the slope, pull a Canada, and require graphic photos of clogged arteries next to each menu item?

  13. This counting calorie thing is getting way to regulated and complicated. If only humans were genetically engineered with a feed back mechanism so they felt full after they ate enough.

  14. How about this: picture of a huge carmel and whipped cream-filled coffee shake, and the caption: “Yo, loser, it’s not a carrot.”

  15. Why not use calorie risk symbols like those used in skiing? Green circle could include tofu and alfalfa sprouts, blue square would represent the risk associated with a hamburger and fries and the coveted double black diamond could represent the extremely deadly foi gras and anything fried in trans fats.

  16. 87,000 combinations is a trifle.

    Here is an idea that Wendy’s / Tim Horton’s may not have thought of:

    Print calorie counts by each menu for the way they serve the item if you don’t specify a special order: that is fully loaded, in the case of Wendy’s sandwiches. Then the calorie counts would only take up about as much room on the menu board as the prices.

    What does your p.r. contact at Yum Brands say about this new reg, Mr. Sullum? Are they looking forward to more vigorous competition on the issue of calories?

  17. Or they could print the calorie info the way Subway does in their ads, plain sandwich with no cheese, mayo, or dressing. Yummmmmmm.

  18. 87,000 combinations is a trifle. They could probably get the registers programmed to print the calories on the receipt.

    Not every combination affects the price. In fact, the vast, vast majority of variations do not affect the price.

  19. Or they could print the calorie info the way Subway does in their ads, plain sandwich with no cheese, mayo, or dressing. Yummmmmmm.

    Which, by the way, is how I ordered them at Subway (at least until their meat quality slipped). It was successful advertising, and it was successful at least in part because: (i) they made it clear that chees / mayo / dressing were not included; and (ii) I don’t mind ordering the sandwiches that way.

    If Wendy’s were smart, and they agree with you that Subway is being misleading, then they can certainly exploit that in their advertising. “Parts is parts.” “Where’s the beef?” Those ads about meat freezers. Wendy’s used to know how to compete using info that consumers cared about. They were good at it. Then they got meat freezers and got lazy. Time for a return to the good old days.

  20. Perhaps Starbucks is going to call NYC’s bluff to show the absurdity of the whole thing. “And as you can see, the menu board continues around the block this way…”

    Methinks the irony will be lost on Ze Calorie Cops.

  21. There should be a Wendy’s and White Castle exception to this regulation. Prominently at the top of the menu board would be written, “Nutrition info: trust us, you don’t wanna know.”

  22. using the same type size as the product listing.

    Easy to get around: have your product listing in really small type on an 8×11 sheet of paper inside a frame such that you’ll need a 2500x magnifying glass to read it. Then plaster the walls with “Big Mac Extra Value Meal only $4.99 for a limited time!” signs.

  23. I’ll gladly post the nutritional information about my food as soon as NYC posts health information about its air in the subways and the streets of Manhattan. How about the city posting its crime statistics on every street corner for a 2 mile radius of the corner? The shitty air, the potholes, the rats, the crime… we deserve a break today!

  24. What if these restaurants just claim that their menu items aren’t food?

    You know, the sooner I die of a massive coronary the better off the state will be since I won’t be able to get any social security payments.

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