Michael Bloomberg

The FDA's Menu-Labeling Mistake

This is a really bad idea.



Earlier this week, the FDA released rules that will force food sellers around the country to provide point-of-sale calorie information to consumers. The rules cover chain restaurants, vending machines, "movie theaters, sports stadiums, amusement parks, bowling alleys and miniature golf courses that serve prepared foods." The rules apply to foods and beverages—including beer, wine, and spirits—sold at these places.

Big deal? Not if you ask Bloomberg News reporter Anna Edney, who suggests this is just a case of the federal government "catch[ing] the rest of the country up to what cities like New York have already done."

Just what has the rest of the country been missing? Does mandatory menu labeling work? Even perhaps its most ardent supporter doesn't seem to think so.

"It won't stop the obesity epidemic, but it may make it better," said Thomas Farley, the former New York City health department head who, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, implemented the nation's first mandatory menu labeling scheme in 2008.

Farley's enthusiasm might have been tempered by research showing mandatory menu-labeling doesn't work—and may even be counterproductive.

Because the new rules will cost more than a billion dollars not to stop the obesity epidemic and maybe make it better, some who have to spend that money aren't pleased.

For example, that potato salad you buy at your grocery deli counter will fall under the new rules. That doesn't sit well with grocery store owners.

"Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law," said National Grocers Association president and CEO, Peter J. Larkin in a statement. "We are disappointed that the FDA's final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members."

Pizza franchises like Domino's are also covered by the new rules, an issue I wrote about last year. They're fighting back, pushing legislation in Congress that would exempt them from the rules.

While some of the opponents of the new rules are obvious, one group hailing the rules this week—the support of which might surprise casual observers—was the National Restaurant Association, which supported passage of the federal law.

As I wrote last year, the NRA, which represents restaurant chains across the country, supported the national menu-labeling rule as a shield against a growing, costly, and unworkable patchwork of different state and local menu-labeling laws.

It's the same reason that food manufacturers, facing mandatory GMO-labeling pressure in dozens of states, counties, and cities around the country, are pushing for Congress to pass a uniform national GMO-labeling law.

Do I understand why the restaurant industry and food manufacturers are pushing for one bad federal law instead of hundreds or thousands of worse laws at the state and local level? Absolutely. Do I support such laws? Not at all.

When I criticized the menu-labeling rules earlier this week on Twitter—pointing out that research has shown such laws don't help people make healthier eating choices—supporters of the law jumped to its defense.

One defense of mandatory menu labeling they referenced—and which has been noted by the press—is the claim that menu labeling forces food companies to reformulate existing foods into healthier foods.

While this column isn't the place to conduct a complete analysis of reformulation claims, I can pour some cold water on the one related claim I took a few minutes to explore.

A 2012 fact sheet produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which supports mandatory menu labeling, touts reformulation as a beneficial outcome of such labeling.

"Applebee's introduced its 'Unbelievably Great Tasting and Under 550 Calories' menu featuring lower calorie alternatives to their regular menu items," notes the CSPI fact sheet.

The not-terribly-subtle insinuation as to why Applebee's might have done this serves as the title of the fact sheet: Product Reformulation: A Beneficial Outcome of Menu Labeling

But the facts don't quite mirror the fact sheet.

"Since 2004, Applebee's is the only restaurant chain to offer Weight Watchers-endorsed entrées," reads an Applebees press release from 2013. "In addition, Applebee's has offered its Unbelievably Great-Tasting and Under 550 Calories menu since 2008."

Again, New York City was the first locale in the nation, in 2008, to require menu labeling.

CSPI would have us believe that a large national restaurant chain featuring more than 2,000 locations around the country would revamp its menu nationwide because of the introduction of one law in a city that's home only to a tiny number of the chain's restaurants. We'd also have to ignore that Applebee's voluntarily offered Weight Watchers-endorsed entrées years before that. It also appears Applebee's isn't swapping out existing menu items for lower-calories options so much as its adding lower-calorie choices to sit alongside existing menu choices.

Where mandatory menu-labeling advocates see product reformulation spurred by regulations, I see a restaurant chain smartly adapting to meet changing consumer demand.

What's more, where advocates see mandatory menu labeling rules fostering new and "better" food choices, the familiar scourge of unintended consequences means the outcome of the rules may not be the one they want.

"When faced with the choice between doing calories counts for servings of romaine, iceberg, and Boston Bibb and 17 kinds of dressing, a grocery store may opt instead to shrink its offerings and move away from marketing fresh, ready-to-eat foods to customers," wrote Reason's Katherine Mangu Ward earlier this week. "On the margins, labeling may nudge some retailers to offer healthier choices, but it's also possible that grocery stores will get rid of the rabbit food altogether and just point their hungry customers to a display of Hot Pockets and a semi-sanitary microwave."

I couldn't agree more.

"I don't support coerced menu labeling generally because it limits culinary innovation and doesn't appear to achieve its stated goal of reducing calorie intake," I wrote last year. The new FDA rules only strengthen my beliefs.

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  1. Is someone gonna check on Agile Cyborg this morning? And by check I mean verify he’s dimensionally intact.

    1. Please don’t give him any reason to come into this thread. 🙁

      1. Hey Ted. Saw your Disney-TCM post on your blog (yesterday?). If not Cinderella, how about Song of the South?

        1. You think Disney’s going to let that air uncut/uncensored anywhere?

          1. Not (again) in my lifetime.

          2. I saw it on the big screen in the Fox Theater…back around 1970.

            1. I saw a DVD of Song of the South in Britain 10 or so years ago, bought it and watched it. Brought it back here and watched it until the cheap player I had wore out and I got one that worried about the region codes.

    2. He understands truths like you and I never will.

    3. Worst case of diarrhea of the keyboard/mind I’ve ever seen.

    4. I think it was a mentat in the middle of a psychotic break

    5. I’m sure AC will be waking up naked in a pie of My Little Ponies soon enough.

      1. Would you behead my little pony?
        Answer the question!

    6. Did I miss something good?

      1. It was spectacular.

        1. Which thread?

          1. Last two

    7. “He flies so high, he swoops so low,
      He knows exactly which way he’s gonna go.”

  2. A 2012 fact sheet produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest,

    Since you’re dealing with CSPI here, shouldn’t the word “fact” be in scare quotes?

    1. Also “Science” and “Public Interest”.

      1. And “for”

        Biggest bunch of science-proof attention whores active in the nutrition field. should be deep fat fried and then thrown out as rapidly as possible.

        1. As Mary McCarthy (sister of Kevin from Invasion of the Body Snatchers) said about Lillian Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

        2. And particularly “Center.”

    2. the same people that are against fat and meat and won’t admit the truth

  3. I think that somebody with sufficiently thick skin could make the argument that the FDA’s record over the last quarter century (longer, really, but farther back gets harder to collect data for) shows that they cannot formulate nutrition guidelines and regulations faster than the science changes. Consequently, buy the time they are requiring one pattern of labeling, it is according to guidelines they already consider misleading. So the entire enterprise is a waste of time, money, and public goodwill.

    The money would do more good if converted into fish pellets and airdropped over the central Pacific.

    1. you mean a country with hundreds of millions of people with varying tastes and diet can’t be understood by top men? Unthinkable!

      1. My experience and reading of history os that Top Men can’t get down stairs and around corners.

      2. The TOP MEN will tell you what to eat, and you will obey.

        1. No, I won’t. And if they have the brains that God gave a turnip, they’ll stay away from me.

  4. Everyone who has said “there oughta be a law” will, again, get what they want. Good and hard.

  5. OT: Once again, the Irony Meters at ThinkProgress are in need of recalibration


    What does “reasonable” mean? It means whatever we say it means. Ultimately our answer of what reasonable conduct entails is not defined by law, but a reflection of society’s majoritarian norms.

    1. It means ‘we decide,your too stupid,this is what is best for you”.

    2. Maybe the protestors could have seized Wilson and hanged him from a tree for real justice. What’s that called again?

    3. I’d call the kettle black, but….

    4. “Reasonable” is relative and subject to the eyes of the beholder. Progs love this like they love the term “extreme”. In context that progs use, they are meaningless so progs get to make them mean whatever they want.

      1. The epitome of Newspeak.

  6. Organizations like the National Grocers Association and Domino’s, who are trying to exempt themselves from the regulations, are wusses. If they should be exempt, why shouldn’t everyone be? They’re not part of a solution, they’re part of the problem. They have no principles. If they did, they’d argue that the rules should be abolished.

    1. Yes, but success is much more likely if they ask for an exemption as opposed to asking for the entire law to be repealed. These days, the law only applies to the plebes who can’t afford to higher lobbyists.

    2. Would you rather no slaves ever be freed, because then there are still other slaves?

      1. They are still slaves, but slaves with special privileges. And they would probably prefer the special privileges to being free and having to compete, so fuck ’em.

  7. Thus proving why when one stupid idea happens somewhere influential like New York or California it spreads like a virus across the CONTINENT.

    1. Wish it were truly fly over country, eh.

  8. Just what has the rest of the country been missing?

    Bloomies good ideas, DUH. I mean, no one really needs more than 500 calories. Think of teh childrunz!

    National Restaurant Association…supported passage of the federal law

    Finally, an NRA that Bloomberg can get behind.

    …Applebee’s voluntarily offered…

    Operative word. Food fascists don’t want it to be voluntary.

  9. Oh we don’t give a damn
    about the whole state of Michigan
    the whole state of Michigan
    the whole state of Michigan
    We don’t give a damn
    about the whole state of Michigan
    ‘Cause we’re from Ohio!

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  11. Fuck you New York. I’m more than happy not to follow you off a cliff.

    1. No, please, don’t fuck New York. You might not get the ENTIRE range of STDs you would if you fucked New Jersey, but it still wouldn’t be good?..

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  13. Not to be dramatic or negative, but this is why we lose. The left is fucking relentless in their quest to control every aspect of our lives.

    Do we honestly have a chance with logic and reason with these people?

    1. No, but we stand a decent chance with firearms and baseball bats.

  14. “It won’t stop the obesity epidemic, but it may make it better,” said Thomas Farley

    “‘May’ means ‘may not’,” said Charles U. Farley.

  15. FDA, 1950s: “We need to set RDAs for vitamins and minerals, but we won’t do research to determine optimum levels. After all, if we set them that way, it’ll show that many Americans are malnourished, and that will give the commies ammunition for propaganda. So just determine the levels that will, on average, ignoring different individual’s biochemistry, prevent known diseases, and maybe add 10% to be safe.”

    FDA, 1970s: “Let’s make everyone healthier by telling them to eat more grains and less meat and fat.”

    [Obesity epidemic begins.]

    FDA, 2014: “We need more nutrition labeling because everyone is so fat.”

  16. Do they really think a fat person will become thin because theyre suddenly confronted with the amount of calories in a taco?

    The mind boggles at the inanity of useless regulations.

    And it’s not there aren’t andozen apps that will tell this stuff if you want it.

  17. The easy solution, of course, is to just stop selling people food. It’s bad for people to have food anyway. They might eat too much and become overweight.

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  20. A lot of new expenses for the menu labeling. Then I am sure a whole bunch of new FDA agents to verify that labeling is correct. As if the person ordering the double bacon cheeseburger didn’t know it was high in fat and calories, but it is damn good. Yummy.

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