Food Labeling

Pizza Is Awesome and the FDA Sucks

FDA honcho Scott Gottlieb caves on Obama's menu labeling regulations.

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Scott Gottlieb, FDA. laksanardie/Fiverr

Don't get me wrong: Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is my dude. He's is one of the best things about the Donald Trump administration. In his short time as the head of America's top regulator of stuff we put into our faces, he's been doing good work and saying good stuff on drug pricing, vaping (mostly), and health tech regs. Matt Welch gives him a high-five in Reason's June cover story about deregulation. And I understand that, pace Littlefinger, he can't be fighting every battle, everywhere, always.

But Gottlieb whiffed on this one: On Friday last week, when you might have been distracted by a few other small news items, he declared himself "pleased to announce" that he's caving on long-delayed implementation of Obama era regulations (Section 4205 of the Affordable Care Act, "Nutritional Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants") that require a huge swath of restaurants, cafes, and other vendors to slap calorie counts and other nutritional information all over their menu boards.

The battle over menu labeling has been lengthy and arduous. As I wrote more than six years ago in "The Federal Government Wants You to Know That Your Pizza Contains Between 1,840 to 3,740 Calories. You're Welcome," these rules are ill-suited to the way the fast casual sector of the food industry functions. When restaurants have lots of options for customization and many different sizes, labeling each option becomes cumbersome quickly.

Blessed are the pizzamakers for they have been on the front lines, since Domino's and co. feared they would suffer most as regs made getting a pie a little more expensive and a little more annoying for every single one of their customers. But as some provisions were gradually tweaked to accommodate folks with big lobbying shops, that opposition has dwindled. In fact, the restaurant industry has basically more or less given in on this, having already spent many of the hundreds millions of bucks compliance costs as the deadlines drew ever closer.

And Gottlieb, bless his heart, retreated to the highest ground available to him: transparency. He's right that transparency is good. (He might want to mention that to his boss, incidentally.)

As a doctor, father and the head of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, I believe that everyone is entitled to the information they need to make informed decisions about the food they eat.

But elaborate hyper-specific federal regulations are not the appropriate way to achieve that transparency, and they come with an epic list of unintended consequences.

So here's my last cry into the darkness: They're now a fait accompli, but menu labeling mandates are still bad. They're expensive, as even the FDA itself acknowledges. They're ineffective tools to reduce obesity. They are redundant to existing regulations which already require restaurants to make nutrition information available online and in handouts, doubly so in a country where nearly everyone carries all of human knowledge in their pockets every day all day. The regulations lag change in private industry, where many restaurants were already responding voluntarily (and more intelligently) to demand for more information and healthier choices. The government's commitment to the labeling rules will almost certainly outlast the validity nutrition science they are based on. Plus they encourage bad graphic design.

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  1. They have something on him. Big Calorie Count has something. He’s bent the knee and there’s no going back.

    If you’re eating pizza you know what you’re in for. People are generally stupid but they’re not that stupid. In fact, I would wager most people think pizza is actually worse for you than it actually is.

    1. People are generally stupid but they’re not that stupid. In fact, I would wager most people think pizza is actually worse for you than it actually is.

      Agreed.

      1. so, are you occupied with juggling the crusty dough they toss by hand in a pizza joint…..?

    2. Pizza isn’t bad for you: it’s a good mix of fat, protein, and carbs.

      What’s bad for you is 3000 calories of pizza in one meal.

      1. True. Who’d say a tomato & cheese sandwich is a nutrition nightmare?

        1. Ronald “fuckin” McDonald that’s who…

  2. The worst thing about this is the moral hazard in having a Nanny State – if there’s no warning on the rat poison telling you not to use it as toothpaste, it must be fine to use it as toothpaste, right? I mean, they would have told you if that was something you shouldn’t do. And by the time they add the 387th warning and caution and hazard notification on the packet of rat poison telling you not to set it on fire and stick it down your pants, nobody’s reading all that crap anymore and they miss the actual meaningful warnings. At some point it’s just information overload and nobody cares any more. People are fat and stupid and lazy, if they’re not reading a paragraph on how unhealthy their food choices are they sure as hell ain’t reading a telephone book and handing them a telephone book makes them that much more unlikely to read it, not more likely.

    1. “…and nobody cares any more.”

      I wouldn’t say nobody. There are all those government employees setting and/or enforcing standards – all the way down to specifying the font type and size; then there are the compliance personnel at all the (large) businesses or compliance consultants for everyone else; plus people organizing and running he trade groups advising all of them; and let’s not forget the lobbyists working to protect and/or amend the regulations, etc. et.al. ad infinitum… They all care deeply.

      It’s always enlightening to see when Reason goes to the mattresses over government excess and when they don’t. This time they didn’t.

      State level legislatures or officials attempting to enforce immigration law? “An affront to liberty!!!!”

      Swarms of officers sent to harass our people and eat out their substance? “Oh well, no biggie, better luck next time.”

    2. At some point it’s just information overload and nobody cares any more.

      Yes.

      1. Isn’t that the point of government? I almost said, “bad government”, but in the end, that would be superfluous. So perhaps is, “but in the end”.

        Point is, government intentionally buries us in crap so deep that you can’t even breathe – let alone fight. The entire criminal “justice” system (that is, a system that is criminal), is predicated on the “plea bargain” – a choice between “do 6 months in jail and get a misdemeanor record for a crime you did not commit” and “Roll the dice gambling that you won’t get 5 years in prison and a felony record for a crime you did not commit”.

        The very nature of regulation is to restrict freedom. That’s the purpose of regulation!

    3. I was just at a mandatory safety class (to teach college lab courses) last night, where they explained that, because of lawyers, Right To Know has been displaced by Right To Understand.

      1. I used to work with a guy, in a company consulting and training group. Among his other witticisms:

        I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.

  3. OK, now they are coming for Pizza, and I am going to speak up!

    Mostly, I find that this is great timing, coming right after the year long huge study showing that carbs are the thing, not so much calories.
    I still think some courageous company should just put up one sign per store, saying “depending on your personal choices, food from this store may contain from zero (water) to twenty thousand (one of each item, fully loaded) calories. I mean, they have lawyers on staff, so there is no real cost to the inevitable federal charges, and lots of free publicity from social media campaigns showing how they are fighting on behalf of their customers.

    Welcome to the revolution!

  4. I’m fairly confident every local pizza joint in my area with ignore this, as they should.

    1. Unless the pizza joint is close to a civil war monument, then look the fuck out.

  5. “As a doctor, father and the head of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, I believe that everyone is entitled to the information they need to make informed decisions about the food they eat.”

    Scott Gottlieb, meet Google. All the detail, more up to date than a sign which has gone through fifteen months of federal review, and able to focus on what really matters since two days ago, carbs.

    TA-DA!

  6. If you’re full then STOP EATING.

    If the thought of another bite makes you want to barf them STOP EATING.

    If it starts to taste like sand then STOP EATING.

    Follow my advice and you will lose weight in no time.

    1. IME the only reliable mechanism for weight loss is hunger.

      If you are never hungry you will never lose weight.

      1. IME the only reliable mechanism for weight loss is hunger.

        If you are never hungry you will never lose weight.

        No.

      2. Well, if you are never hungry, there is probably something wrong with you (either you are eating constantly, or don’t have a healthy appetite). But I’m not so sure that being hungry a lot is great when trying to lose weight.

      3. True. I tried the “I won’t eat again until I’m hungry” diet. That lasted all of about 7 hours.

        1. What worked for me was not eating anything for three days – then eating nothing but one small salad and a glass of wine a day for 37 days while running twice a day in the snow (about 5 miles). I was famished the first two days. By day three, I was a lot less hungry. By day 5, the salad was enough.

          I dropped 40 pounds in 40 days and suffered no ill-effects. In the 35 years since, I’ve gained back half the weight. Bottom line is: If you really want to lose weight, all it takes is willpower.

        2. WOW, way to hang in there to the bitter end, great endurance you’ve shown there. I can’t make it more than maybe two or three max hours before I’m feeling hungry.

          But then, I ride a bike thousands of miles a year…… might be some sort of connexion. Still wear the same size clothes I did in high school when I was a skinny little guy all those decades ago. So I’ll suffer a bit of hunger once in awhile…… but seven hours? Over the top!!

  7. I’m extremely disappointed in the lack of deep dish alt-text in this article

  8. As a doctor, father and the head of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, I believe that everyone is entitled to the information they need to make informed decisions about the food they eat.

    I didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called “mister,” thank you very much. You’ll notice that all the sharks have laser beams attached to their heads. I figure every creature deserves a warm meal.

  9. I’ll fix that statement to make Reason’s writers like the guy:

    As a doctor, father and the head of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, I believe that everyone is entitled to the information they need to make informed decisions about the food they eat drugs they inject.

  10. If you want to eat healthy and/or watch your calorie intake, you probably should be avoiding fast food/fast casual restaurants for the most part anyway. Why is every restaurant obliged to help people eat well? It’s just silly. Most people are capable of figuring out that a large fries and a quart of sugar water isn’t a great thing to consume every day.

    Of course the main objection to this should be that private businesses should not be conscripted into a government health program (of questionable validity, no less). But it’s all just crazy.

    1. Most people are capable of figuring out that a large fries and a quart of sugar water isn’t a great thing to consume every day.

      I believe you are seriously over-rating the intellectual capacity of “most people”. Most people are like dogs when it comes to eating. They don’t think “is this good for me?” or “Will this make me fat?” or “How will this affect my health?” Dogs just see something that smells good to them and they scarf it up.

      So if we think that’s bad behavior, and we decide we want to change it – that we have a right to try to change it, what should we do? Slap labels on dog food, rotted meat and piles of excrement? Silly boys! Dogs don’t read!

      Neither do people who eat like dogs – and that’s most people.

      1. which is why so many folks die so young, and mostly of health issues all but unknown two generations ago. I DO ask those questions about everything I eat…. and have for a couple of decades. I’ve also watched a number of acquaintances five to twenty five years younger than I am die or craxy things like heart attacks, cancer, strokes…. or end up with a tin ticker in their chest, then can’t do much of anything because the stupid thing is dialled down so low their heart never pumps above tickover speed. So no exygen to their systems to DO anything with.

        And THAT is precisely why a year’s premium for OhBummerTax carries a price tag of four times, for one year’s “coverage”, what I have paid out of my pocket for ALL my medical care for four DECADES… cash in full at time of service. And once I would have paid that year’s premium, if I do have any needs, the deductible is far more than I’ve ever spent in one year for all my care.

        Folks don’t understand that food is the chemical mix that makes the body function… or not. Put the good blend of stuff in, the body does what it is designed to do, well and efficiently. Put in garbage, well…. you know the rest of that sentence.

  11. “As a doctor, father and the head of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration” and not to mention a big fat poopy head…

  12. OK, I know I’m “out there” but I can’t remember the last time I stopped to read any of the nutritional postings in any fast-food joint. If I want the milkshake I’m getting the milkshake, end of story. Nor do I need nutritional warnings on that candy bar to advise me that it contains sugar and has 0 nutritional value. When I want nutritional value I’ll eat a chicken-fried steak.

    1. I sometimes read them, but only for the purpose of getting the most calories for my money.

      1. I actually do this as well, because I want a meal that has the most possible calories in it which is essentially the reverse of what those requirements are for. I’ll admit it has come in handy for me, but it shouldn’t be mandated by law either. There is a maximum amount of calories-by-weight after all which, if memory serves, is around 3500 or so per pound of fat. Something like that anyway.

        1. Ah! That’s for strictly chemical processes.

          The max is closer to 6 billion calories (fusion).

          Oh wait. I forgot about anti-matter!

  13. If people gave a shit about their caloric intake, they wouldn’t be fat asses in the first place. Here’s a law that will do nothing.

    1. The info can be helpful, but there are too many combinations, especially in a place like a pizza shop, to place it all on a menu board. The feds would be better to say “make it available.”

      Sheetz is a big convenience store chain based in Pennsylvania. They have automated kiosks where people can order food. There are literally thousands of combos that can be made of burgers, dogs, wraps, burritos, salads, pizza and more. There is no way they can list all these on a sign or menu. Do you want lettuce or onions or tomatoes or cheese or pico or guac or fries on that burger?

      They’ve created an online nutrition calculator
      https://www.sheetz.com/nutrition/calculator

      There I’ve bee able to do some research and find that a grilled chicken sandwich with no cheese and honey mustard has a third of the fat and calories of one that has provolone, mayo & ranch dressing.

      They can post it on the internet. They can’t post it on the wall.

  14. Remember folks, behind every disclaimer is an epic fail.

    We are living in a nation who turned the highest office in the land into an episode of the Jerry Springer show, after all.

  15. Regulations can become silly. At one recent time, a N.Y. mayor prohibited restaurants and fast food vendors from serving the really large soda sizes. It was a health issue, intended to help people from getting overweight. Unfortunately, it also restricted the sizes of low-calorie “diet sodas.” The law did not prohibit refills, presumably because people would get more exercise if they meandered to the drink counter now and again. People who carried their orders out to cars and homes couldn’t get refills, but at least they got more exerlcise.

  16. Not everybody is comfortable with a smart phone. As a customer, I appreciate the fact that the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf posts their calorie counts, although most other chain restaurants have (until now) found a loophole to avoid it. I give them my business partly because of that.

    Of course, that’s my choice as a consumer. Having the government mandate it… not so great.

    1. Would you be upset if they had a small flyer with the information on it? Or are you only able to read the information when it’s plastered across a 20-foot menu board?

      I don’t think most companies really object to providing nutritional information. It’s just that the menu is no longer a menu – it’s a menu PLUS a whole lot of nutrition information that really isn’t necessary. I saw this sort of display recently for the first time (I’m not a big fast food consumer) and I thought, “What the hell? The government must be making this poor business do stupid things because no one in their right mind would do this on their own.”

      As cheap as computers are now, they could even set up a free-use computer to look stuff up and just put all the data on a web site. That way when you order a 30″ bacon, burger, sausage, Canadian bacon, quintuple-cheese, thick crust stuffed pizza, with anchovies on half the pizza, you can actually compute how many calories those extra anchovies are costing you!

  17. the really STUPID thing about all this is that the folks who have SERIOUS weight/health issues already know they do but have decided to do nothing about it. THEY will never read those labels/calorie counts, because they are NOT COUNTING calories. they eat what they WANT to eat.

    And a straight calorie count is worthless in nutritioin management.

    Cheese, mayonnaise, butter, pepperoni, sour cream, ranch dressing all have fat in them. But so what? The REAL issue is WHAT KIND OF FAT? And a straight calorie count does not discern between what KINDS of fat might be in the stuff. Depending on quality of cheese, there might be a lot of good milkfat, or some processed oils. butter, is it grass fed, or standard feedlot dairy product? Sour cream…. real milkfat or a blend of carageenan and soy oil or canola? Mayonnaise could be pure unadulterated olive oil or some hydrogenated palm kernel oil or rapeseed oil……and the calorie count will tell you nothing about any of that.
    Similar things go on with carbohydrates and proteins…… again, the calorie count is simply a gross number but meaningless when it comes to truly trying to monitor what enters your body’s system.

    Once more, gummit whiz dumb strikes a blow for stupidity and false feel-good meddlig. butt OUTT.

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