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.