Public Health

Too Much Information?

Why menu labeling laws are bound to fail

|

Restaurants in New York City with 15 or more outlets nationwide now must conspicuously post the nutritional content of each item on their menus. Similar legislation is coming to San Francisco and Seattle, and is under consideration in about a dozen other cities and state legislatures.

At first blush, this seems like a good idea. Why not force restaurants to let their consumers know the nutritional value of what they're about to eat? If we're to believe what the public health world says about our bulging waistlines, perhaps a little more information would be a good thing.

The American Prospect's Ezra Klein made this argument last month, writing, "It's a bit rich to watch libertarians and associated anti-government types oppose a regulation that gives consumers more useful information. This, after all, is how markets are supposed to work best. Consumers have better information, can pursue their preferences in a more coherent manner, and the market can provide, adapt, and innovate in response."

It's a compelling argument. But the menu labeling debate is actually a bit more complicated than that.

First, it's expensive to send an entrée to a nutrition lab for testing. Labs typically charge $850 to $1,000 for the service, and most restaurants will want to test an item more than once to ensure accuracy. Any "have it your way" customization of an item would also need to be tested, which means a typical sandwich might need to be tested dozens of times to account for the various condiments and accouterments a restaurant may want to offer.

There is another way to gauge the nutritional content of menu items that's a bit less expensive. That is to break every item down to its most basic ingredients and their quantities, then to run those ingredients through a nutritional database, which adds the ingredients up, then spits out totals. This too has its problems, in that it requires restaurants to (a) turn over proprietary recipes for analysis, and (b) abide by those recipes every time, without fail (remember this the next time a fast food critic laments how "it all tastes the same").

The main problem with all of this is that it requires restaurants to slavishly adhere to the recipes of the dishes they originally sent away for testing. Let's say a particular batch of tomatoes delivered to a restaurant were particularly bland, for whatever reason. Don't even think about adding an extra dash of salt to your dish to compensate. If the original dish had only a dash of salt, you've just doubled the sodium content.

You can also forget about substitutes, seasonal variety, or allowing customers to customize dishes in ways that haven't been broken down.

Forget about "going local," too. Buying from local growers is less predictable than buying from a national network of food suppliers, where shortages or disappointing harvests from one area of the country can be accounted for by purchasing more from other areas. Buying local would require variance in menus that could become cost prohibitive.

Menu labeling laws mean every restaurant in a given chain needs to make every dish exactly the same way, every time. Most menu labeling laws allow for a 20 percent margin of error. This is the same variance allowed for the nutritional information on manufactured food products, where assembly-line machines cut exact portions and abide by standardized recipes using the same ingredients, every time. That's quite a bit different than having real live people making dishes from what's available in the kitchen. Yet both are held to the same standard.

Of course, the labeling of manufactured foods is another argument in favor of the futility of these menu labeling laws. We've been labeling packaged foods for decades now—the foods that make up the vast majority of our meals and snacks and where we get most of our energy. And we're still getting fatter.

Supporters of menu labeling laws know that complying with these laws will be expensive and onerous. That's why they've only applied them to chain restaurants—restaurants they say can afford to send dishes off for nutritional testing. That makes the targets of menu labeling laws corporations, a more politically palatable target than the mom and pop diner.

Still knowing that adding a new dish to the menu could cost several thousand dollars and will almost certainly result in one of two consequences: Either restaurants will dramatically cut down on variety and serve only meticulously portioned cookie-cutter dishes, or they'll merely pass the costs of testing additional dishes on to consumers.

Certainly, the chains that just make the cut of 10-15 franchises (depending on which law you're talking about) will think twice before offering a perk like daily specials, where each new daily dish could add thousands of dollars to the company's bottom line.

But even large chains are going to be more hesitant about regional variety. And chefs at high-end spots like steakhouse chains are going to be extremely unlikely to create customized meals, or prepare dishes for people with specialized diets.

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.

Advertisement

NEXT: I Also Ain't Got Time to Bleed

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.

  1. Will these new laws keep the average price of a meal for a date down? Someone get back to me with an answer.

  2. Will these new laws keep the average price of a meal for a date down?

    Not if she purges, or whatever the correct spelling is of that fancy-word throwing up thing.

  3. Will menu labeling laws save us from our expanding waistlines?

    Of course it will because the government is here to help us.

    BTW, didn’t you lose a few pounds between the last times we spoke in person? Just because the government started helping after you lost waist real estate does not mean that their heaplful measures are not needed for the weaker in our society.

  4. Oh, come on. If municipal governments aren’t passing laws like this, how can they expect to show that they are working for the voters. Won’t someone think about the politiicans?

  5. What seems fishy about all this is that the info has to be on the menu, instead of an accessible poster on the wall or something similar. Constantly reprinting menus is costly for restaurants, and if one thinks about it, entirely unreasonable, so I can’t help but wonder how much the printing industry has donated to the legislators that are pushing these bills.

  6. M2,

    What seems fishy about all this is all that mercury in the fish we need to be protected against. That needs to be added to the menus too, right after these are printed up of course.

  7. BTW, love the Diva Village ad to the right. Props to the sales staff.

  8. There was a place near my office whose gimmick was to print the nutritional information right on your receipt for you. It failed miserably. I actually think it was a good idea and I liked knowing what I was eating, but the food was terrible and I only went in there a couple of times. Kind of reminds me of the origins of the seat bealt in cars. It’s not that people didn’t want safe cars, its just that the first cars with safety features sucked royally.

    Most fast food places have a big poster near the door where you can look up nutritional information if you really want. I actually use them.

  9. Damn food labeling laws. Now I’ll no longer be able to sample the delightful selection of locally-produced grass-fed daily specials lovingly prepared by molecular gastronomist chef Billy ( a 16 year old minimum wage earning employee) at my neighborhood McDonalds.

  10. And we’re still getting fatter.

    The real reason for this is that we’re getting richer; but don’t worry, they’re working on that problem too.

  11. Of course they matter. People have to be constatly reminded about the health hazards out there in freedomland.

    Some of you may think that warning labels on cigarettes is a stupid idea. Well I actually read those labels and as a result have changed my tobacco purchasing pattern.

    Nopw I only buy the ones that are bad for pregnant women.

  12. The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein made this argument last month, writing, “It’s a bit rich to watch libertarians and associated anti-government types oppose a regulation that gives consumers more useful information. This, after all, is how markets are supposed to work best. Consumers have better information, can pursue their preferences in a more coherent manner, and the market can provide, adapt, and innovate in response.”

    What Mr. Klein seems to be overlooking is that if there was enough consumer demand, restaurants would provide this information at their own expense without a single government mandate.

  13. I still say that if the government (pick one, any one) wants to be in charge of our colons, they should mandate turnstiles at all restaurants. If you can’t fit through, you don’t get in. Negative reinforcement. Survival of the thinnest.

  14. To paraphrase the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, on Ezra Klein and his ilk:

    “These are well-meaning, committed people. Pundits. The cream of the new American media. You know, morons.”

  15. “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.”

    Is there any precedence for similar law suits against politicians that tell the public (and sign a bill that says) they can do something at cost X, but in the end it turns out to cost 10 times X.

    I’m thinking now about suing Ted Kennedy for telling the American public the “Big Dig” would cost X and ended up costing 10 times X.

  16. I’m gonna start a chain of restaurants styled on the Roman era banquet. I need schematics on the vomitorium. Any takers?

  17. Remind me of the “National Uniformity for Food Act” (H.R. 4167) that the GOP rammed through the House in 2006.

    Killed states rights and created a federal labeling agency both at once.

  18. What Mr. Klein seems to be overlooking is that if there was enough consumer demand, restaurants would provide this information at their own expense without a single government mandate.

    Like Subway began doing almost 2 decades ago?

  19. I’d be happy if they would just make a list of allergens in each dish. They don’t have to put it in the menu, just have it available if someone asks for it. Half my family has food allergies, but there are people out there who don’t know cheese is made of milk and aren’t aware that there are eggs in some batters– and some of them are waitstaff! When we ask “is this rice pilaf made with butter or any other milk ingredients?” they often have no idea and nowhere to check.

  20. The problem with listing all those ingredients is that the more avante garde restaurants go out of business when people see what’s in the dishes. I liked this hot dog stand because their frankfurters had extra snouts, tails, and pig anuses. But when people found out about all the trans fats in pig anuses, they couldn’t sell a pair of buns to stuff with a hot weiner.

  21. Consistency during preparation as well as supplier information will continue to be an issue with restaurants in regards to how accurate their nutrition facts are. Most restaurants have standardized recipes and portion control practices to limit variance among servings, but it’s true that no two human-prepared dishes will be exactly the same. As people begin to rely on their nutrition facts more and more, restaurants will need to keep tighter control over their preparation practices. Companies like the one I work for (www.cookedapple.com) can help by providing nutrition information on standardized recipes without expensive laboratory testing. It is then the restaurant’s responsibility to follow those recipes. What was once a cost control issue is now an issue of what’s right and wrong.

  22. Let’s see, our food will taste the same all the time, all of our food will cost lot’s more, variety will be gone, no more “custom”‘ meals, government will grow, and, we’ll all still be “too fat for our own good” yea, that’s the free marketing workng as planned, you bet.

  23. Balko raises some interesting points about the real costs of implementing various labeling policies. Perhaps NYC would be better served (so to speak) by setting up something like the EPA’s voluntary Energy Star program for food, complete with a logo and certification process. It worked for monitors…why not marzipan?

    FWIW, I’m rather skeptical of the claim that nutrition labeling has done consumers no good simply by pointing to the failure of labeling to singlehandedly reverse what is undoubtedly a complex sociobiological phenomenon; speaking as someone who actually pays attention to the information on nutritional labels (well, at least when I’m trying to lose weight) I wonder if the important issue isn’t whether or not to label so much as how the current labels are used and whether they can be improved. One study seems to indicate that consumers often erroneously assume that a single wrapped package of (say) two granola bars contains a single serving and treats the calorie count on the back accordingly…if the requirement were changed so that the count reflected the total amount of calories per individually wrapped package, this would give consumers better information based on how they actually use the labels.

  24. Balko has some good points.

    As for “It won’t make us thinner or healthier on average” argument, I think that may be true. But that should not be the goal, strictly speaking, of policies that aim to provide information. Having people know more about what they are getting is an end in itself.

    But the argument that it will impose significant costs on restraunts and reduce the variety in meals (and the tendency to add new meals) is getting me to lean against this policy.

    Perhaps it makes more sense for companies to just list the nutrition estimates in their websites, along with estimates of the variance of calories that occurs when preparing these meals under real conditions. This would cost less than frequently reprinting menus and the information would still be available (without too much inconveinience) for those who want it. And since many restraunt chains posted such information online voluntarily, we might not need a policy requiring them to do so.

  25. One study seems to indicate that consumers often erroneously assume that a single wrapped package of (say) two granola bars contains a single serving and treats the calorie count on the back accordingly…

    Don’t the nutrition facts include a statement of what the serving size is?

  26. 6 of 21 meals is not “3 out of 100”, but 30 out of 100, or about 30%.

  27. Don’t the nutrition facts include a statement of what the serving size is

    Yes, but it appears that lots of folks just look at the calorie count on the label and treat it as the total count for the entire package…while it’s fairly straightforward to multiple the number of servings by the calorie count to get an accurate number, this requires an extra mental step and really isn’t all that surprising considering that some “servings” are barely more than a mouthful. Optimally, information should be structured in a way that jives with consumer expectations…how we actually use the information instead of how we “should” use the information.

    (Interestingly enough, I wrote out a much longer reply to this and lost it when reason.com’s commenting system (or sunspots, or something) failed to transfer the content of my post when I hit the preview button. Knowing that this is a possibility I’ll probably take steps on my end to prevent it from happening in the future, but I might easily have just thrown my hands up in disgust and moved on. Extra steps are a pain.)

  28. 6 of 21 meals is not “3 out of 100”, but 30 out of 100, or about 30%.

    Well, just over 28.5%; but you are right about the basic idea.

    Yes, but it appears that lots of folks just look at the calorie count on the label and treat it as the total count for the entire package…while it’s fairly straightforward to multiple the number of servings by the calorie count to get an accurate number, this requires an extra mental step and really isn’t all that surprising considering that some “servings” are barely more than a mouthful. Optimally, information should be structured in a way that jives with consumer expectations…how we actually use the information instead of how we “should” use the information.

    I see. I guess they could deal with that by changing the serving size to what people expect, or by having some kind of “Check the serving size” public information campaign.

  29. Anybody have more details on the CSPI attacks mentioned in the article? It makes an ironic contrast to the Baker’s Dozen inspired by the Assize of Bread and Ale.

  30. jeff and BG:

    6 of 21 meals is not “3 out of 100”, but 30 out of 100, or about 30

    Well, just over 28.5%; but you are right about the basic idea

    Perhaps you missed the added component whereby only about 10% of restaurants would be affected by the law, decreasing 30/100 to 3/100.

    Or maybe you are just victims of the modern education system and the “new math”.

  31. While I don’t think government should be involved in issues like obesity, where its a voluntary lifestyle decision that makes you unhealthy, I am for transparency of information in business. However, the problem with restaurants and other prepared meals is, like the article points out, that they vary and are unpredictable. You also can’t require ingredient lists or portioning because that would violate their rights to their intellectual property. The cost here far outweighs any possible benefit, and their approach to the issue (forcing it to be actually *on* the menus themselves, not just available) just hammers home the point that this is not about transparency, its about the gov telling you whats good for you.

    Yes, I think it would be a good idea to have nutritional values available for people when going out to eat. There just seems to be so many factors involved in making that happen, though, that it would be extremely hard to properly implement, and this law isn’t even close.

  32. This criticism IS rich …

    I have yet to read the law but I highly doubt it will restrict restaurants to making identical meals, just give them a reasonable margin of error and reasonable leniency when they test the meals …

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.