Food Labeling

Pizza Is Awesome and the FDA Sucks

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


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.