Food Labeling

Two Burritos for Breakfast

I don't need mandatory food labels to tell me McDonald's isn't health food. And neither do you.

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Two McDonald's burritos
theimpulsivebuy / Flickr

On my way into work, I usually hit the McDonald's drive-through for breakfast. My typical order: two sausage burritos and a large Diet Coke (no ice). The menu board informs me that each burrito contains 300 calories. That's 50 more than an egg white sandwich but 300 fewer than a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel.

McDonald's started posting calorie counts on all its menus in September 2012. The move was partially a response to a proposed 2011 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule affecting chain restaurants and large vending machine operators. Under the rule, calories must be displayed on all menus and menu boards, while other nutritional information—including calories from fat, cholesterol, sugars, and protein—must be made available in writing upon request.

The regulation, finalized in 2014, was smuggled in with the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. In a paternalistic effort to fight obesity by making people more aware of the fat and sugar content of the food they consume, that law called for a national standard to pre-empt the patchwork of state laws already on the books.

It should go without saying that the proper role of government does not include telling people what to eat. But even if the government did have a right to interfere in people's nutritional choices, it wouldn't be necessary. When Obamacare passed, there was already a perceptible and growing demand from consumers themselves for more nutritional information and healthier food options.

In 2010, Self magazine launched NutritionData.com, which analyzes food labels and estimates calories in specific food from its very large database and recipes. Within a year it was recording more than 1 million unique visitors per month, according to the magazine's digital director, Kristen Dollard. But the site's data weren't entirely novel. At least 14 large restaurant chains, including Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, and McDonald's, were already providing nutritional calculators on their websites.

In fact, McDonald's began offering nutritional information more than three years before the FDA rule was finalized, when it recognized that "customers want to know more about the nutrition content of the food and beverages they order." The chain also trained some 750,000 of its employees in matters of nutrition and details of the company's menu so they would be able to answer questions from customers, and it created an app allowing customers to access nutritional information wherever they might go. At the same time, McDonald's unveiled several healthier menu items, including a grilled chicken option for the Happy Meal, an egg white McMuffin, and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

The fast food giant's sudden commitment to nutritional transparency likely had something to do with the rise of a number of competitor chains that were pitching themselves to the health-conscious crowd. Panera Bread, which fancies itself a healthy alternative to fast food, started posting calorie counts on its menus way back in 2008 and completed the process nationwide before the ACA ever became law.

It's true that Panera's interest in disclosure intensified when New York City began to consider enacting menu-labeling requirements. But that wasn't the only factor driving the company's decision. As Panera's chief concept and innovation officer, Scott G. Davis, explained during a National Restaurant News Show in 2011, consumers will find a way to get nutritional information whether a restaurant makes it openly available or not. He noted that Chipotle consumers had independently created an online calorie calculator for all of the chain's menu items. So you might as well get out in front of the demand.

But it turns out that in the fight against obesity, labeling menus hasn't delivered on its promise. Despite the clamor for more information, Panera quickly discovered that its disclosure efforts were failing to change customers' dietary choices.

This is consistent with the findings of numerous peer-reviewed studies. In the February 2011 American Journal for Preventive Medicine, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School researchers Eric A. Finkelstein, Kiersten L. Strombotne, Nadine L. Chan, and James Krieger wrote that a mandatory menu-labeling regulation imposed on Washington state's King County restaurants did not affect consumers' calorie consumption at all. The authors "were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation," they wrote. And their study is not alone.

Such findings are at odds with a report by the White House Task Force on Obesity, which claimed that "when presented with calorie information (how many calories are contained in each menu item) and a calorie recommendation (how many calories men and women of varying activity levels should consume), people on average order meals with significantly fewer calories." First lady and benevolent food tyrant Michelle Obama likes to cite that data point when pressing for greater restaurant regulation.

But as Julie Gunlock explained at National Review Online in 2011, that claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny. "This study was conducted in one Subway sandwich shop on only 292 participants, the vast majority of whom were adult white males, 25 percent of whom admitted they were currently dieting," she wrote. "This isn't exactly research upon which major policy decisions should be based." And yet, in this administration, it was.

There are many other arguments against food-labeling regulations of the sort the FDA is now imposing on businesses around the country. For one, the science behind what causes obesity is far from settled. All this focus on calorie counts, for instance, may be misguided, since recent food science suggests that all calories are not created equal. Yet that doesn't stop bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture from patronizing Americans with dietary guidelines that may or may not turn out to be correct. Unfortunately, when a piece of government guidance is proven wrong—as has happened with decades of exaggerated cautions against sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol—it can take years to reverse the position (40 years in the case of cholesterol) and correct mistakes.

A March 2012 paper by the economists Sherzod Abdukadirov of the Mercatus Center and Michael L. Marlow of California Polytechnic State University looked at anti-obesity efforts in the United States in the 20th century. The authors found that government policies have been ineffective mostly because they are designed to remedy a market failure, while in reality, obesity is a problem that many people, not least the obese themselves, have a strong incentive to address even in the absence of official intervention.

That doesn't stop the FDA from drafting rules that completely ignore the costs that will be borne by affected businesses and their customers, all without bothering to independently verify that their preferred "solutions" will really work. A document submitted by Panera General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer Scott Blair during the comment period for the FDA's proposed food-labeling rules explained that the company's ability to figure out how to provide usable information to its customers requires flexibility and time. Unfortunately, the agency does not seem to have taken those comments to heart. The final rule demands compliance on an unjustifiably short timeline and offers zero room for experimentation and improvement on official guidelines. This impedes companies that genuinely desire to help their customers make smarter decisions.

The bureaucrats at the FDA have never faced the need to swiftly adjust to changes in consumer demand, or adapt to developments in human understanding about what's healthy. Nor have they figured out how best to act on the information they learn. The same federal government that is virtually immune to the consequences of being wrong will continue to make sure that, hell or high water, you will know how much saturated fat is in that delicious, crispy KFC chicken breast.

NEXT: I Can Smell It. I Can Smell It Right Now.

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  1. The regulation, finalized in 2014, was smuggled in with the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

    They had to pass it to find out how many calories were in it.

    Panera quickly discovered that its disclosure efforts were failing to change customers’ dietary choices.

    The Obamacare fix is going to include a mandate that the higher the fat content in a food item, the more syrup of ipecac restaurants must dump all over it.

    And lastly, Coke for breakfast? Sounds like a certain immigrant has assimilated a little too well to America.

    1. “Let’s play a game: whoever can drink the most syrup of ipecac without puking gets the last piece of pie in the fridge!”

      1. I don’t know if you’ve tried the pie but I had some earlier and it was tasty… BLARGH!!!

        1. Hey guy, the vomitorium’s right there.

          1. A vomitorium is a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance. They can also be pathways for actors to enter and leave stage.[1] The Latin word vomitorium, plural vomitoria, derives from the verb vom?, vomere, “to spew forth.” In ancient Roman architecture, vomitoria were designed to provide rapid egress for large crowds at amphitheatres and stadiums, as they do in modern sports stadiums and large theatres.[2]

            I wonder where the misconception that a vomitorium was a place for bulemics came from?

            1. BTW: that definition is from Wikipedia. Sorry I forgot the attribution.

    2. I had coffee and an arepa this morning. Looks like the immigrants are effecting our breakfast!

      1. My breakfast was a sandwich made from Italian Cold cuts and new world peppers. I think immigrants may have had something to do with introducing them.

  2. But seriously, why is Hardee’s like the only fast food joint where you can get a side of gravy? How does Chik-fil-a not offer gravy?!!?

    1. As a rule ,I never eat breakfast.Except during water fowl season. A steak and egg biscuit for me and a couple gravy and biscuits for the dog. A thermos of coffe and a couple cigars.Good days’

      1. Their pork chop biscuit with egg and cheese and a side of gravy is GOOD FOR WHATEVER AILS YA!!!

        1. What if what ails me is a heart attack?

          1. Its GREAT for those!!

            1. i dunno why gravy has the reputation of being bad for you. what it really is is just stock and roux (flour and butter), so it’s not super nutritious, but there isn’t anything unhealthy about it, unless you’re the kind of person who likes to drink glasses of gravy

  3. I for one really appreciate the informative articles by du Rugy.

    Now that I’ve gotten seriousness out of the way….

    There were so many interesting (to me) names cited that by the time I arrived at “California Polytechnic State University” I read it as California Pyrotechnic State University.

    I blame the burritos.

  4. “But it turns out that in the fight against obesity, labeling menus hasn’t delivered on its promise. Despite the clamor for more information, Panera quickly discovered that its disclosure efforts were failing to change customers’ dietary choices.”

    You can already predict what comes next…..

    “Labeling has not proven successful! We must therefore ban high calorie foods!”

    1. Failure of government… mumble mumble… more government…

      Same arguments will be made with Obamacare… its all the left has…

    2. You can already predict what comes next…..

      “Labeling has not proven successful! We must therefore ban high calorie foods!”

      Yes. We granted you the ability to make an informed choice, but you didn’t make the right one, so we’re taking it away from you.

    3. The point of labeling shouldn’t be to ‘prevent obesity’ or change behavior. It should be to force transparency into the market so that there is less information asymmetry. That IS part of a free market. And it should be as much of a non-event as mandating manufacturers to put the weight of a product on canned/sealed food – and to have a consistent definition of ‘weights and measures’.

      If a manufacturer is putting peanuts into their food; then they damn well should be telling people that. If a manufacturer is putting manure into their food and telling customers that it is canned pony; then they damn well should be subject to being sued for fraud – and the only way to do that is going to be that label.

      1. you think that companies fraudulently putting shit into human food would print that on the label?

        Other methods like health inspections seem like they would help with that issue but I must be wrong because “the only way to do that is going to be that label”.

        And how is it in a manufacturers interest to put shit in food … esp when competing with non-shit based food?

      2. absolutely. i have the same thought about GMO labeling. i think gmos are cool as hell, and i think it would be a shame if baseless stigma kept us from getting all the possible benefits from them, but should people be able to decide whether they’re comfortable eating genetically modified food? of course (aside from the fact that everything we eat has been genetically modified so any “choice” on that score is illusory)

        1. but it would be very obviously insane to say that gmo labeling isn’t working cuz people aren’t eating as much less of them as i’d like. i think maybe we’ve culturally so accepted that being unhealthy is evil that anything that’s even pretending to “help” us be healthier is preferable to the alternative. this argument gets more valid as medicine gets more socialized, which is one of the scarier parts. if im paying for your healthcare i do have a real interest in what you eat. and of course i’d prefer a world without heart attacks, but we’re completely imagining that we have any real idea how to keep “society” healthier. it’s all just a sciencey sounding excuse to control other people

    4. oh what i was predicting was “it’s not working? obviously we’re just not doing it hard enough”. we should probably make people get the calorie count of their last meal tattooed on their forehead

    1. The brickbast stopped being posted in H&R?

      1. *falls to knees in rainstorm*
        WHHHHYYYYYYY!!!

      2. Does the answer begin with a capital “H”?

    2. They’re all trying to install Windows 10.

    1. Sounds like Nassim is getting some Malthus OLD-TIME RELIGION!!!

      DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMM!!!!

      Somebody get me Paul Ehrlich so I can congratulate him on finally being right…

    2. I guess humans shouldn’t have domesticated cattle or planted crops either, because that wasn’t a bottom to top natural progression.

      1. I get that this guy is a respected economist, but what makes him an expert on GMOs again?

        1. True, but his theories on risk and fragility are applicable to non-economic systems as well.

      2. I guess humans shouldn’t have domesticated cattle or planted crops either, because that wasn’t a bottom to top natural progression.

        He’d say that’s different because these were cultivated in smaller steps and introduced gradually.

        1. A fair point, but GMO wasn’t invented yesterday either. The U.S. Plants GMO crops, but not every country does, so I’d say it is a similar progression.

        2. Translation: far less directed and precise, using the crudest of tools, with far greater probability of unintended consequences.

          Thanks, I’ll take actual modern science and engineering.

        3. I’d say it’s because there’s a difference between hybridizing multiple varieties of corn and inserting insect genes into corn via splicing.

          Hybrids come about slowly, over time, and there is plenty of opportunity to see the effects of each generation. . .

          Gene-splicing allows for exactly none of that. . . leaving the very real possibility that your great-great grandchildren might be born Brundleflies.

  5. Roll up to the teller fella with a minute to spare
    Frenchy with a headset, “can I take your order?”
    A McGriddle with a little sweet and sour there, son
    A McMuffin, then be stuffin’ muffins up in my trunk

    Then a tray or two of hotcakes, man I can’t decide, uh…
    All’s I know is hit them things with Aunt Jemimah
    How ’bout an egg fajita for some Texas flavor
    No drama but my momma wants a breakfast bagel

    Don’t forget my #4, or there’ll be hell to spend
    And I want them eggs poached like an elephant
    Frenchy back on the line, “is that all your order?”
    No it ain’t, fool, I want a Coca-Cola!

    – Remy

  6. Here’s the main issue- the food talked about here is just plain shitty. Except Florida Man’s arepas. Arepas are the shit.

    The world’s greatest breakfast is migas, anyway.

    1. I’ve always found that Baileys Irish cream and coffee is a great breakfast before golfing in the A.M.

      1. Might as well go all the way and have Irish coffee. With an extra shot, just for the vitamins.

        1. I did that once,didn’t help my game.I have to mow all afternoon.Have a white pizza in the fridge with peppers,romas,garlic and basil leaves all from the garden.Even made the crust,thin.Now,what beer to have with this?

          1. Oh, no doubt- it’s summer, so IPA.

            1. I may have a bottle of chilled Beaujolais.

              1. That goes with everything. Seriously.

          2. I don’t know, I’m always in the mood for an IPA but in this case I’d go for like a rye beer, maybe a spicier hefeweizen. Or split the difference and go for one of these “RyePA’s” the kids are talking about these days.

            Oooh, not sure if you’re in the Chesapeake Bay area, but if you are, Flying Dog’s Dead Rise would be the ticket. It’s nice and light so it’s good for doing yard work in the summer, plus the Old Bay will compliment the white pizza really well.

            1. Sigh. My feeling of age is intensified when I recall that Natty Bo is no longer “brewed on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.”

              1. Tell me about it. A hipster bar down the street used to sell it as an import/craft beer.

                1. Holy fuck. It is indeed the End Times.

                2. huh? that stuff is too gross to enjoy, even ironically. I non-ironically appreciate it being like $12 a 30 rack though

          3. Chipotle/tequila bloody Mary.

    2. I could go for some chilaquiles as a favorite for breakfast.

      1. My wife and I argue over what real chilaquiles are, but she’s from New Mexico and I’m from California. Either way, damn fine food. Imagine how terrible McD’s, Hardee’s, or Chick-Fil-A could make them.

        1. We have a local place managed by a guy from Puerta Vallarta and he does a mean authentic chilaquiles. Not on the menu, but happy to make them for us. I hear what you are saying though – no McChilaquiles for me thanks.

          1. What is the Puerta Vallarta take on chilaquiles? I think it’s one of those regional things like BBQ that everyone argues over.

            1. Not exactly sure, but very similar to the ones we had in Cabo. Spicy tomato puree, eggs, shredded chicken, chorizo, softened tortilla chips, black beans, pico de gallo, cilantro, avocado and crema fresca on top. Something like that. Really delicious.

              1. OK, more like the NM version than the California one.

                Damn, I’m hungry now.

              2. the pico, avacado & crema makes it sound somewhat Salvadoran

  7. I just find it interesting that Canada and the USA are knocking themselves silly with ‘online calorie calculators’ and ‘calorie labeling’ and all sorts of other metrics and models to know ‘what they’re eating’ in an effort to be healthier.

    Yet, the great culinary societies of places like France, China, Italy, India etc. all mastered their respective diets over thousands of years without a single counter.

    1. “Great Culinary Societies”?

      1. French,Greek and Italian is what I make mostly.Some Spanish and Mexican.And seafood,any kind and steaks of course. I can live on a Med diet,and wine,lots of wine,and British and Irsh beer.

        1. In Heaven: The lovers are Italian, the chefs are French, the engineers are German, and the police are English.

          In Hell: The lovers are French, the chefs are English, the engineers are Italian, and the police are German.

          1. What about Cajun? I love their food.Alligator and craw fish,love em. And oysters are the food of the gods.

            1. People think I am weird but I actually love British food. Haggis (but then i got married in a kilt!), shepherd’s pie, steak pie and chips.

              1. And single malt scotch!

          2. Italians can be equally great chefs, lovers and engineers.

            They get a bad rap on the engineering. It’s an engineering society.

    2. The ‘calorie’ is really an obsolete measure anyway. Innovative in 1900 when there was nothing else really known about what happens to food when it is ingested. But yeesh, obsessing about ‘calories’ now – and repeating the century-old memes about ‘calories’ is now ignoring everything that has been learned about human digestion and health in the last 100 years.

      Calories (and for that matter a carb-rich diet) is for livestock where they are sold by the pound before slaughter. No surprise that Americans are turning into livestock- because that’s the way we eat.

  8. I’m a bit confused. It seems as though the prog narrative says that Americans are both obese and starving at the same time. Almost like a version of the notional ‘hungry ghost.’

    1. What ever works

    2. Poor people can’t afford to spend much on food, and the cheapest foods are junk foods, hence the poor are both obese and malnourished. That’s the narrative. It actually makes a lot of sense, unless you’ve actually been poor, in which case you realize that while you might only be able to afford ramen, beans, dog food, and bologna, it’s actually kind of difficult to buy enough of those things to become obese. I myself didn’t pork up until I could actually afford to buy groceries for both myself and my cats, so I speak from some experience here.

      The fact is that, medical exceptions notwithstanding, most people who are overweight or obese (and again, I speak from experience) get that way not because they don’t know that subsisting on three pounds of fried chicken a day while living a sedentary lifestyle isn’t healthy. They get that way because they lack impulse control and haven’t learned to do things like plan for the future, balance immediate desires against long-term results, etc.

      And guess what? People who lack self-discipline and make bad decisions with regard to diet also tend to make bad decisions with regard to finances. Poverty doesn’t make people obese; sustained poverty and obesity are often–not always, but often–the end result of consistently poor decisions.

      This is why listing the caloric value of food will no more end obesity than displaying the prices of goods has ended poverty.

      1. Upon rereading, I notice that I say “actually” a lot. I’m blaming the newborn and the lack of sleep, but I’ll also take this as an opportunity to add my voice to the chorus pleading for an edit button.

        Seriously, guys, I’ll write the code for free. It’s so easy.

        1. *raises pitch a half-step*
          *adds voice to chorus*

          Look! Harmony!

      2. What is it about America that produces so much laziness, lack of self-discipline, and poor decision making?

        We hardly have a bigger welfare state than thinner countries, so that can’t be it. Maybe we just suck. And we’re also by far the most criminally prone because of how many people we put in prison.

        1. We’re not a homogenized society. We are a melting pot, which ensures that we get the culinary tastes and diets of a wide variety of people.

          We are not an island country or a country that subsists on fishing as a main economic force, thus our diet is not as simple as those countries. (Think Japan or Scandinavia)

          We are a new country. Thus, we lack the long-standing culinary traditions of other countries.

          We’re an incredibly large country. Thus, we have the infrastructure and room to build giant warehouses and storefronts to store and sell an incredible amount of goods in various (large) volumes. We also have wide roads and giant trucks. And bigger houses which can hold bigger refrigerators which means less stops at the market for fresh foods.

          We’re an entrepreneurial and innovative country. Thus, we are quick to seek solutions to problems other cultures and countries don’t encounter, like how to ship products 3,000 miles away and keep them from spoiling ? leading to the development of preservatives and additives to retain freshness.

          Which means we are a wealthy country, and can afford in most cases to indulge all of these habits and more.

          1. Science seems to be converging on blaming refined carbs, but it’s frustratingly hard to get good science because of all the interests involved and the complexity of the problem. No doubt the fact that many of us don’t walk anywhere is part of it as well.

            But surely we can agree that blaming laziness is obviously not only implausible but is a way to avoid finding real answers while blaming the victims.

            1. Victims? The irony is that by robbing people of their agency you’re denying them the most important tool they have to change their lives for the better. You’re effectively saying that people from different socioeconomic classes than you can’t be expected to make good decisions on their own, and it’s up to their betters to remove the scales from their eyes. Rather than letting people own their own decisions and empower them to take responsibility for themselves, finding excuses for the situations these “victims” have placed themselves in simply robs them of any hope that they could change their own lives.

              1. Interesting way to flip the agency part. I was trying to say it gives us more agency if we can actually research the problem. Blaming it on personal choices is just not plausible, because it would mean that what’s special about America is that its people are exceptionally bad at self-control. That cold be true, but would then have to be explained as well.

                1. “Blaming it on personal choices is just not plausible…”

                  Every single individual owns his/her own choices. It does not matter whether the choice is “good or bad.” Your bad may be my good; I decide that, and not force via another individual or group of individuals. My reasons and choices are no one elses business and no one has to justify their own choices.

                  When an individual reaches the age of consent, it means that. Consent. In agreement, or in voluntary contract. I give McDonalds $, and they give my sandwich of choice from their menu offerings.

                  Or am I missing the force that caused a victim? Nope. I drove my car to the fast food joint, I stood in line, and I ordered. I traded my $ for that sandwich.

            2. I didn’t mention laziness at all.

        2. “We hardly have a bigger welfare state than thinner countries”

          The UK is doing its damnedest to catch up to us. Weigh too many stone? You get a check for that.

        3. What is it about America that produces so much laziness, lack of self-discipline, and poor decision making?

          Progs.

        4. Safety nets that have become crutches and a culture of avoiding accountability. The gradual emergence and solidification of cultural mores that view hard work, ambition, and the acquisition of wealth as sins. The increasingly popular belief that individuals are owed a standard of living by society at large, and any gap between one’s actual situation and one’s desired situation can only be explained by someone else’s failures. The nationalization of individual responsibility and policies which strengthen the state while promoting the impotence of the individual.

          Or you can blame white bread and sugar, and simply ignore that the thinner countries you’re referring to have had those in abundance for centuries.

          1. Safety nets that have become crutches and a culture of avoiding accountability. The gradual emergence and solidification of cultural mores that view hard work, ambition, and the acquisition of wealth as sins. The increasingly popular belief that individuals are owed a standard of living by society at large, and any gap between one’s actual situation and one’s desired situation can only be explained by someone else’s failures. The nationalization of individual responsibility and policies which strengthen the state while promoting the impotence of the individual.

            IOW, “Progs.”

          2. Well thinner countries also have more social welfare, so maybe both are wrong.

            I’d suggest it’s not just the presence of refined carbs but the fact that it’s in everything Americans eat.

      3. junk foods are more expensive than getting meat and fresh veggies at WalMart. For convenience, some people would rather get frozen and canned.

      4. Real life dictates what you can do. Calories do not fix medical issues, time issues, money issues. Calories will not make the choice between exercising and being a part of your children’s lives any easier. Calories will not make you less depressed when someone, who has NO idea what your life is like, feels the need to comment on your “lack of discipline” and “poor choices”. Calories can be helpful, but the problem is far more complicated than “calories in, calories out”.

        Poverty and obesity CAN be the result of poor choices. It can also be the result of situations that are not entirely under your control. Because no one wants to LISTEN to either group, we don’t actually know which of things is the problem with “most people”. When either group tries to tell anyone what it’s like they are told to stop making excuses.

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  11. One man’s meat is another man’s poison – peanuts, lactose, gluten, etc. If you don’t have any of these problems I’m happy for you but would you be willing to buy and drink a glass of lemonade if there was a chance there was antifreeze in it? That’s about what some do when they go to a restaurant and eat dishes with unknown ingredients. It’s a lottery of pain.

    Telling people what a product actually is so they can make an informed choice is what free markets are all about.

    Once the product for sale is identified correctly as to the most basic ingredients what people do with it is none of the government’s damn business. Small businesses shouldn’t need access to a chemistry lab. Citizens don’t need a nanny.

  12. I thought we had settled on bourbon for breakfast?

  13. Can’t afford fast food anymore. I owe it to the poor people of the world to stop going to these places, making rich people rich, with only concerns of their wealth. No consideration for the people that got them there.

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